In August, the U.S. Department of Justice released a report calling the conditions at Rikers Island unconstitutional. Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced that the federal government would sue the city unless the city agreed to a list of sufficient reforms by a certain deadline.
Joseph Ponte, who took over as the city’s corrections commissioner this year, said he was down with all that. Mayor Bill de Blasio, after all, had appointed him to make Rikers Island a bit safer and a bit more humane. The corrections department was “fully cooperating” with the feds, Ponte said.
And so in the weeks since, the city and the U.S. Attorney’s office have, presumably, been working together to produce a plan for reform. Perhaps they were nearing an agreement, or perhaps not, but either way, Bharara’s deadline was this week.
Useful timing, then, for the New York Times‘s revelation that the city might not have been as cooperative as Ponte suggested. On Monday, the paper reported that the city had not turned over to the feds a 2012 internal audit stating that a warden, William Clemons, and a deputy warden, Turhan Gumusdere, were responsible for several months of falsely reported statistics that gave the inaccurate impression that violence was decreasing at the jail.
Instead, the city gave federal investigators a redacted version that cleared the two high-level guards of wrongdoing, and did not include a passage that held them accountable for the manipulated data.
As the Times reported, the document the city turned over stated that the evidence “does not support a conclusion that facility staff manipulated statistics to underreport inmate fights and as such no one individual was found responsible for deliberately and knowingly misrepresenting or ordering the misrepresentation of facility statistics.”
The original audit, however, added this:
The audit-investigation did find, based in part on their own admissions, that former Warden Clemons and Deputy Warden for Security Gumusdere abdicated responsibility for the facility’s reporting of inmate fights and failed to supervise, manage, or oversee the facility’s reporting of violence statistics, statistics that [the Robert N. Davoren Complex] was obligated to report pursuant to department policy.
The document the city turned over said that “no explanation exists for the significant and inaccurate decreases in the number of inmate fights the facility reported from May to October 2011.”
The original document put it this way: “no legitimate explanation exists for the dramatic and inaccurate decreases in the number of inmate fights the facility reported from May to October 2011, a period that directly corresponds to the time when William Clemons and Turhan Gumusdere served as RNDC’s warden and deputy warden for security, respectively.”
The corrections department told the Times that the document it gave federal investigators was not a redacted, cleaned-up version, but a “draft.”
It will be harder for Ponte to distance his administration from the redacted audit. Again, he will be able to say that the possible misconduct described in the audit took place under his predecessor. But he will have more trouble asserting that the department had nothing to do with the cover-up under his watch.
Ponte would have had reason to be discreet about the roles of Clemons and Gumusdere. Though the audit recommended that the two men be demoted, Ponte gave gave each a promotion. Meanwhile, the person who wrote the audit, Florence Finkle, resigned in August.
“If, as has been reported, incomplete and inaccurate information has been provided to us, and questionable promotions may have occurred, it does not instill confidence in us that the City will quickly meet its constitutional obligations,” Bharara said in a statement on Monday. “Now that the 49-day waiting period has elapsed and all options are available to us, we stand ready to take legal action to compel long-overdue reforms at Rikers, if that becomes necessary to get the job done.”
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