Rikers Con Job

With jail violence out of control, a bogus task force only made things worse

By Graham Rayman

published: August 08, 2012

A shadowy jail "violence reduction" unit linked to a top Corrections Department official is under investigation for falsifying reports, beating inmates, and violating department regulations, the Voice has learned.

The plainclothes unit, known as the "violence-reduction task force" or "special search squad," allegedly operated outside the rules, Correction sources say. The unit was not properly cleared to perform sensitive investigative work, and its members were improperly assigned to the unit and entered jails without following security procedures.

The city Department of Investigation is probing a range of allegations, including filing false reports about the discovery of a weapon at the Manhattan jail known as the Tombs and punitive beatings of inmates in the George R. Vierno Center and the West Facility on Rikers Island. One of those inmates suffered broken facial bones.

The DOC's Assistant Chief of Security, Eliseo Perez, who was involved with the unit, retired after being formally interviewed about his alleged role in a July 11 beating of an inmate in GRVC. (In an odd reversal last week, with the investigation still pending, Perez withdrew his retirement papers.)

Perez's boss, Deputy Chief of Department Carmine LaBruzzo, the man who formed the unit earlier this year, is also facing scrutiny. LaBruzzo is the second ranking uniformed official in the DOC behind Chief of Department Michael Hourihane.

LaBruzzo's top aide, Captain Gerald Vaughn, has been questioned, along with half a dozen other task force members. Several of them have refused to cooperate with the investigation unless they were given immunity from prosecution, sources say.

"[LaBruzzo] basically created his own rogue gang-intelligence unit out of people who never would have been cleared to do investigations,"

a Correction source tells the Voice. "This is at a time when the real gang-intelligence unit has been cut by 35 percent."

Another member of the unit, Deputy Warden Turhan Gumusdere, was linked to allegations of a cover-up of inmate fights and use-of-force incidents last year in the Robert N. Davoren Center, the jail that houses teenagers. That cover-up is part of a separate probe.

Diane Struzzi, a spokeswoman for the Department of Investigation, declined to comment when asked about the investigations.

In response to a Voice inquiry, Correction Department spokeswoman Sharman Stein gave this statement: "The DOC cannot and will not comment on allegations that are in the process of being investigated. Moreover, The Village Voice should not draw conclusions about assertions that are in the process of being investigated and thereby compromise an ongoing investigation."

These investigations come during a difficult period in Commissioner Dora Schriro's tenure. Slashings, fights, attacks on Correction officers, and staff uses of force are all on the rise this year. At least 40 slashings were officially recorded at Rikers in the first six months of this year, a rate double that of last year. There were 84 major assaults on staff by inmates.

A federal investigation into violence and misreporting of fights and other incidents is ongoing, and a major class action lawsuit alleging widespread continued staff violence against inmates was recently filed. In part, that lawsuit alleges that Schriro promoted to senior positions staffers who have long histories of encouraging excessive force against inmates.

Meanwhile, some of the worst slashings recorded this year have taken place in high-security areas, where inmates aren't even supposed to come in contact, much less possess weapons and attack one another. These incidents suggest breakdowns in security.

On July 9, at GRVC, inmate Corey Parron was slashed by another inmate, Donald White, in a high-security unit where inmates are supposed to be moved using mitts to cover their hands and enhanced restraints. White had somehow obtained a titanium scalpel blade, which he used in the attack. (Titanium blades don't show up in magnetometer scans, so the jails have introduced body-imaging machines.)

"His whole face was hanging off," a Correction source says. "This is one of the worst slashings that's happened in a long time."

Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed last week alleges that inmate Dwaine Taylor twice suffered a broken jaw at the hands of Blood gang members in 2011, and those attacks were condoned by staff—a practice that DOC officials claim had been stopped.

The city was recently fined $10,000 by a federal judge for failing to turn over hundreds of gang-intelligence reports to lawyers for Kadeem John, a former inmate severely beaten on Rikers. A videotape that would have shown John's beating wasn't preserved, and the man responsible was released, even though Correction officials had a report that identified him within two days of the assault.

And now, the revelations about the rogue unit raise questions about Schriro's ability, in an agency known for its minefield-laden political landscape, to keep her subordinates in line.

Most of the members of the shadow unit had worked in the George R. Vierno Center with LaBruzzo, a former warden there.

In creating the unit, LaBruzzo bypassed personnel rules, Correction sources say. The jobs were never posted as required. The transfers were never formally approved, and they were improperly working outside of their official assignments.

Members of the unit—some of them facing disciplinary charges or investigations of their own—were not formally cleared to do investigative work. They walked into jails without getting prior approval and didn't, in some cases, even sign security logbooks.

When the unit tried to set up shop in the Rikers offices of the elite multi-agency gang/narcotics unit, known as High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, commanders there objected. HIDTA—which includes the NYPD, Nassau, Suffolk, parole, and probations—manages huge amounts of highly sensitive information and conducts interviews with confidential informants.

"They said: 'Who are these guys? Do you know how much classified information is in here?'" a Correction source says.

LaBruzzo is one of several high-ranking Correction officials "promoted to positions of increased responsibility" by Schriro, despite histories of excessive force, according to the Nunez class action lawsuit filed earlier this year by Legal Aid's Prisoners' Rights Project. "Between 1996 and 2003, LaBruzzo was charged with six use-of-force incidents," the lawsuit says.

There also have been allegations that when LaBruzzo was warden at GRVC, staff indulged in punitive beatings of inmates to keep them under control.

"The mantra was 'Hold it down. Hold it down,'" a Correction source says.

In February, Bronx prosecutors indicted one of LaBruzzo's aides at GRVC, Deputy Warden Edwin Diaz, for attacking an inmate who had punched a female officer in 2008, and then falsifying records to cover up the assault. Diaz's union has strenuously defended him, and Diaz pleaded not guilty.

In July 2011, Schriro assigned Deputy Warden Eric Ramos to run the Central Punitive Segregation Unit, even though he had previously been repeatedly accused of involvement in or ordering brutal beatings of inmates at GRVC, including a 2008 incident in which he allegedly ordered an inmate to claim his injuries were self-inflicted.

According to the Nunez complaint, Legal Aid lawyers wrote Schriro a letter last year "detailing Ramos's history of misconduct and admitted contempt for the department's written policy" and urged he not be transferred there. The Nunez complaint claims that following Ramos's appointment to the bing—or solitary confinement—inmate complaints about beatings and threats "increased dramatically." He remains in the post.

Schriro also promoted Mark Scott to Assistant Chief of Security before he was recently replaced by Perez for reasons that remain unclear. In 1997, Scott, as security captain in the bing, was suspended for 42 days for striking a prone inmate repeatedly with a baton "as though he were spear fishing," the Nunez complaint says.

The complaint says a city administrative judge found that Scott also failed to notify superiors about the incident and submitted a false report about the assault. Since then, he has been promoted several times to the highest reaches of the DOC.

In 2008, Scott was deputy warden at RNDC when 18-year-old Christopher Robinson was murdered as part of "The Program," in which the staff deputized gang members to keep order. That incident sparked a massive investigation of the practice and lead to indictments of four officers and a dozen inmates. But Scott was made warden at another jail, the George Motchan Detention Center, and then promoted again to assistant chief of security, under LaBruzzo.

Scott was replaced in that post two months ago by Eliseo Perez, who has been caught up in the investigation surrounding the task force.

Another member of the task force, Deputy Warden Turhan Gumusdere, was in charge of security at RNDC last year—during the period when violent incidents were allegedly being covered up—and was a named defendant in the landmark Shephard class action lawsuit, which led to a court-appointed monitor in the jails.

Approximately seven other Correction staffers were assigned to the unit, including two pulled out of the depleted gang-intelligence unit.

One leg of the investigation being conducted by the DOI involves alleged false reports filed by members of the task force that claimed they found a scalpel blade used in a particularly gruesome slashing in an ultra-high-security unit at the Manhattan Detention Complex, known as the Tombs.

Under the security setup in the unit—which contains some of the most violent people in the system—inmates are not supposed to have contact, and they are supposed to be moved with mitts and shackles. But somehow, two Blood sect leaders, Sean "Coolie Weezy" Henry and Elijah "Nuke" Mack, were able to get out of their cells and slash each other, suggesting a major security breach.

The task force showed up unannounced at the Tombs. Correction Department records show that on July 11 at 12:45 p.m., Violence Reduction Task Force Officer William Williams III claimed to have found a "scalpel blade wrapped in black electrical tape on the floor against the wall" in a vestibule on the ninth floor of the Tombs.

Correction sources say that, in fact, an inmate just entering the facility, Jarrett Frost, admitted he had a scalpel, but not the one used in the slashing. Members of the unit, including Vaughn, seized the blade and then allegedly filed reports claiming they had found the weapon responsible for the slashing in a common area, sources and records show.

But an enterprising investigator and the jail warden checked the video. The video showed that the officer who claimed to find the blade never bent down and picked anything up.

Frost had just been sent to the facility and hadn't even been assigned a cell yet when he was searched by the task force, so that blade could not have possibly been used in the slashing, an attorney close to the case says.

"[The task force] were going around wherever they wanted to go and doing whatever they wanted to do," the attorney says.

The Inspector General ordered formal interviews of the task force members with their lawyers and began asking about how the task force came into existence. Frost also cooperated with the investigation.

In another incident linked to the controversial unit, members of the shadow task force were involved in the beating of robbery suspect Jahmal Lightfoot, 26, at GRVC on the evening of July 11. That incident centers on Assistant Chief of Security Eliseo Perez's alleged role in approving the assault.

According to Correction sources and records, the beating followed a slashing at the facility. Records show that inmate Donald White slashed Corey Parron on July 9.

Members of the task force arrived there and conducted a search. In his account, the five-foot-11, 150-pound Lightfoot claimed he was singled out during the search because his pants were hanging down. Captain Vaughn, he claims, began cursing the inmates.

There was some kind of verbal altercation, and according to a Correction source and one of Lightfoot's relatives, Perez told officers to take him in a room and "knock his teeth out."

Lightfoot says he then was taken into a holding pen and ordered to place his hands behind his head. An officer took a swing at him. He dodged the punch. Multiple officers, allegedly possibly including Perez and Vaughn, then repeatedly punched and kicked his body and face.

Lightfoot was first taken to the clinic at GRVC, then to Bellevue Hospital, where he had surgery for facial fractures, including two fractured eye sockets and a broken nose. He transferred again to the North Infirmary Command, where inmates with serious injuries are held. Even though his family says he will need further surgery and the possible insertion of a metal plate, he is now at RNDC.

Meanwhile, the Correction staffers involved came up with their own claims about what led to the beating. They asserted that Lightfoot had cut an officer with a weapon of some kind, but people familiar with the incident view that claim with skepticism.

"First, they said he punched an officer with something in his hand, and then they said he got cut on his arm," a Correction source says. "It's a crock."

Lightfoot's brother, Kareem Burton, 35, tells the Voice that after the beating, he didn't get immediate medical care. Instead, Lightfoot, in extreme pain, was thrown into a GRVC cell for some time until he was finally treated.

Burton says the family only found out about Lightfoot's injuries when a DOC staffer made an anonymous phone call to them. When they called the DOC for more information, they were stonewalled.

"He could have died," Burton says. "He has boot marks on his face, his bone structure is messed up, his breathing, his back. They just disfigured him. You can't even recognize him."

Burton says the task force came into the facility without identifying themselves. "All they said was that it was a special unit, no names, no nothing," he says. "They aren't saying who was in charge. Just saying a special unit came in, and my brother gets beat to a pulp, and no one has answers."

Lightfoot filed a complaint with the Inspector General. The IG interviewed Lightfoot and formally interviewed members of the task force, including Perez.

Perez put in his retirement papers and was replaced temporarily. But then he withdrew his retirement, even as the investigation continues.

Correction officers' union president Norman Seabrook says he backs Perez. "There appears to be no real leadership in managerial positions in the department, and Mr. Perez has always been a leader and someone you need," he tells the Voice. "This is someone who my members respect."

Seabrook said he believed the claim that Lightfoot assaulted an officer. "Whatever force was used to terminate the incident was necessary," he says. "I don't think there was excessive force used."

But Lightfoot's lawyer, Sanford Rubenstein, said the case is yet another example of why an outside monitor is needed. "After the killing of Christopher Robinson, and convictions of Correction officers in that case, now we have a serious issue involving this inmate beaten horribly," he says. "The fact that it is alleged that the assistant chief of security was instrumental in this beating gives even more reason for the Justice Department to appoint a federal monitor to oversee what goes on there. Obviously, the prison administration is not doing its job in keeping inmates safe."

Investigators are also looking into allegations of other beatings of inmates by the rogue task force, including inmate Askia Hinton, who was roughed up and threatened twice around the same time as the other incidents, once in GRVC and once after he had been transferred to the West Facility.

In the second beating, task force members entered the jail without formal permission and never filed a use-of-force report. Hinton has complained to the Inspector General about the alleged assault.

Hinton's mother, Tina, tells the Voice her son has repeatedly been targeted for beatings in the three years that he has been held at Rikers.

On July 11, Hinton was transferred from GRVC to the West Facility. In an account he gave to his mother, he said he was beaten up in GRVC and then punched in the head and the ribs after he arrived at the West Facility.

Hinton, according to his mother, claims he was visited by LaBruzzo, Vaughn, and a third DOC staffer at the West Facility and threatened. "LaBruzzo tells him, 'This is what happens to guys who run their mouths,'" Tina Hinton says.

She adds, "They told him, 'You can stay here and take it easy, and we'll ease up on you, or else.'"

Tina Hinton says her son has been targeted for other intimidation and beatings since March 2010. Correction sources say Hinton is a gang member who has repeatedly gotten into trouble for fighting.

In spring of 2011, LaBruzzo promoted William Clemons to run RNDC, which has had a long and controversial history of fights and gang disputes.

His Deputy Warden was Turhan Gumusdere, another member of the task force. He was in charge of security last year at RNDC, when there was a suspiciously sharp drop in the number of inmate fights, leading to an ongoing investigation into whether incidents were covered up. New information obtained by the Voice suggests it was more extensive than DOC officials have thus far acknowledged.

Gumusdere installed a captain and placed him in charge of what was called an "enhanced security detail" with three other officers. The captain's job was to respond to inmate fights and downplay as much as he could, Correction sources say. In return, he got loads of overtime, about $45,000 in 2011.

Gumusdere then ordered the officer who tracked statistics to stop reporting inmate fights preceding a use of force. That further reduced the numbers. Instead of counting numbers for both inmate fights and the use of force in the jails, only the use of force was counted. Another Correction source says fights would be chalked up to "horseplay" or were simply unreported. Reports to central command were delayed. With no paperwork, it was harder to investigate, and the cases had to be closed, Correction sources say.

Suddenly, Clemons and Gumusdere reported decreases in inmate fights of 70 percent from May to November 2011. Schriro not only praised Clemons, but also gave him an award and promoted him to supervising warden. Gumusdere was also promoted and rewarded with a $124,000-a-year job in the tiny Punitive Segregation Task Force. The captain received a transfer to the Eric M. Taylor Center, considered a fairly cushy assignment.

Clemons's successor, Raino Hills, came in from a training unit to helm RNDC. He started examining the reports and found that not only were fights not being reported, but also there were close to 200 uninvestigated uses of force, Correction sources say. Something like 50 to 100 fights per month were not being reported, the sources say. He refused to sign off on the numbers and instead went to the commissioner's office and reported his concerns.

Meanwhile, Hills brought in an Officer Benson to track violence, and the numbers returned to what they had always been—the status quo. (In recent months, a series of reforms in the jail has done much to legitimately reduce fights, but it took years to implement changes that had been proposed since Christopher Robinson's death.)

Investigators went in and confiscated the reports in question. Clemons and Gumusdere denied knowledge of any tampering with statistics.

Schriro promoted Clemons again to assistant chief in charge of administration, even with the cloud of a pending investigation above him.

Meanwhile, a group of Correction captains had to be transferred out of RNDC because of, sources say, a series of questionable uses of force.

"It was such a disaster, they had to move a lot of captains, and yet the commanding officer got rewarded with two promotions by Schriro," a Correction source says.

DOC spokeswoman Sharman Stein said a report on the alleged downgrading of fights at RNDC is not yet completed. She added, "However, it is clear that the number of fights among adolescents did decrease during the time in question."

grayman@villagevoice.com