A lawsuit filed on March 12th in the eastern district of New York claims that the New York City Department of Corrections (DOC) withheld important records from a federally-mandated disability advocate after they learned guards had brutally attacked a developmentally disabled juvenile inmate at the Robert N. Davoren Complex on Rikers Island.
Disability Rights New York is suing the Department of Corrections for records on a young inmate known only as “AB,” who told the group during a monitoring visit that he was “physically assaulted by corrections staff on or about December 9, 2014.”
As the lawsuit explains:
A.B. reported to DRNY that, on or about December 9, 2014, a corrections officer told A.B. that he was speaking disrespectfully.
A.B. reported to DRNY that he was led to a room, and he was punched and kicked by one or more corrections officers.
A.B. reported to DRNY that he was seen by medical staff at RNDC and was transferred to Elmhurst Hospital for evaluation and treatment of injuries to his face and elbow, and was hospitalized overnight.
DRNY requested AB’s medical records, security camera footage and incident reports from the Depts. of Health and Mental Hygeine (DOHMH) and DOC, the complaint states. DOHMH promptly provided the documents, but the DOC allegedly refused, claiming they could not be released while an internal investigation was still ongoing. Continue reading
On February 11th, the Associated Press reported that the mother of deceased Rikers Island inmate Quannell Offley was suing New York City for her son’s wrongful death. The lawsuit is one of many facing the city over Rikers Island and comes after months of reports detailing abuse and neglect by the city’s prison staff.
According to the lawsuit, Offley told prison guards on multiple occasions that he wanted to kill himself after being placed in solitary confinement. His final threat was met by a guard who said, “If you have the balls, go ahead and do it.” He was later found hanging from a bed sheet attached to an air vent in his cell.
Offley’s suicide came just a few weeks after Bradley Ballard, a schizophrenic and diabetic prisoner, also died in a solitary unit at Rikers. Ballard was locked in isolation for 7 days straight without water, exercise, shower, therapy or medication, and was eventually found unconscious on the floor, covered in feces and urine with a rubber band tied tightly around his badly-infected penis. When clinical staff finally arrived, just moments before Ballard’s death, the doctor refused to even touch him or enter his cell. In what would be the last of several severe violations of Ballard’s civil rights, the doctor instructed inmate workers to wrap his filthy, dying body in a bed sheet and remove him.
According to the New York Codes, Rules and Regulations, “A qualified medical practitioner […] is required to visit the SHU once in every 24-hour period to examine into the state of health of the inmates confined in such unit.” But security camera footage of the SHU where Ballard was confined showed medical staff skipping rounds or speaking with prisoners for little more than a minute at a time. Having been in isolation around the same time as Ballard at Rikers, Offley appears to have experienced similar neglect by medical staff in the unit. Continue reading
The New York State Commission on Correction released a new report this week, detailing the findings from its investigation into the horrific and preventable death of mentally ill black inmate, Bradley Ballard.
Ballard was left in his cell for six days straight in September, 2013. Guards shut the water off to his cell for over four days, and not once during that time was he treated for his schizophrenia and diabetes. On the rare occasion that he was seen by a medical worker, their talks did not last for more than a minute at a time. He was eventually found naked on the floor, covered in feces and urine with a rubber band wound tightly around his cut and infected genitals. Ballard would go into cardiac arrest just a few minutes after being removed from his cell and die from “diabetic ketoacidosis due to withholding of his diabetes medications complicated by sepsis due to severe tissue necrosis of his genitals as a result of self-mutliation.” The commission agreed with earlier assessments that Ballard’s death was, in fact, a homicide.
We’ve known a few of the major details of this case since his family filed a lawsuit on his behalf a few months back. But this report contains more explicit details of Ballard’s mistreatment that should reinforce the intense unease the incarcerated’ and their advocates feel over the continued role and impunity of Rikers’ for-profit inmate healthcare provider, Corizon Health Services, which will soon oversee inmate care in Rikers’ soon-to-be-constructed $14.8 million super-solitary unit known as the ESHU.
Between generous redactions, we are afforded a glimpse at the disturbing reality inmates face under the care of Corizon staff and Rikers’ corrections officers. You should read the actual report because you can’t beat primary sources, but I’ll admit it is a bit cumbersome given the heavy blocks of redacted text and it’s call-and-response format. I created this annotated version of the report to organize the components a bit more logically, which I hope is helpful to some readers.
The commission does not mince words or shy away from assigning blame. It calls out Corizon repeatedly and unequivocally for “substandard medical and mental health treatment.” They write that Corizon’s work was “so incompetent and inadequate as to shock the conscience,” and that Ballard would have survived had he received the appropriate care. Corizon staff are said to have shown “deliberate indifference to Ballard’s serious medical needs by collectively failing to provide the very basics of medical care and failing to take appropriate action in a timely manner to a medical emergency.”
Ultimately, the commission writes, “The lack of coordinated care for and mismanagement of Ballard’s [redacted] represents grossly negligent medical care by Corizon, Inc., endangered Ballard’s life and subsequently caused his death.” Continue reading
The AP reports that the NYC Board of Correction (BOC) will vote this coming Tuesday on changes to solitary confinement on Rikers Island, including a new Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit (ESHU) for the prison’s “most dangerous” inmates and policies that seek to limit punitive segregation for other inmates, particularly the mentally ill and juveniles aged 16-21.
The proposed BOC rules also include:
- Ending isolation for ‘owed time‘
- Ending isolation for ‘minor offenses’
- Exempting ‘seriously mentally ill’
- Exempting juveniles aged 16-17
- Capping solitary confinement at 30 days
- Additional training for ESHU guards
The announcement of a $14.8 million ESHU is the latest piece of Mayor de Blasio’s Rikers Island reform package, and it is complicated by the fact that we don’t know what the programming or therapy regimen for its prisoners will look like. Such proposals are supposed to come out later this year. However, a former head of the Dept. of Mental Health & Hygeine voiced his skepticism over the plan when he testified at a public hearing last month, noting that “previous attempts to create special housing units for troublesome inmates that similarly claimed would provide therapeutic services ultimately turned into restrictive, punitive holding pens.”
And if you dig into the document, you can begin to see what he’s talking about. Continue reading
After a summer and fall wracked with reports of violence, corruption and abuse on Rikers Island, it seems like change, in some form, is finally on its way. Growing protests over law enforcement brutality and the advent of prosecutions, federal lawsuits, committee reports and policy changes now conspire to face down many of the NYC Dept. of Corrections’ worst demons.
Some of the possible reforms have yet to germinate, such as those stemming from the Justice Department’s lawsuit aimed at improving conditions for juvenile prisoners. It could take months or even years before cases like these are resolved and begin to influence the situation on the island. The same goes for the slow drip of prosecutions against individual guards like Terrance Pendergrass and Austin Romain.
The most immediate changes, however, can and will likely come from Mayor de Blasio’s administration, which delivered its own plan to tackle some of the major problems facing the city’s prison system at the end of last year. De Blasio is taking aim at the out-of-control state of prison mental healthcare, made more imperative by a surge in the number of such inmates: roughly 40% of Rikers inmates have been diagnosed with mental illness.
Rikers reform has been trickling out of the mayor’s office for a few months now. In November, at a press conference in which the mayor alluded to some of the greater reforms he would propose a month later, de Blasio said the city would spend $15.1 million to triple the number of security cameras in its jails. He also ordered a new unit for transgender women and “proposed placing the most violent inmates in new units, called enhanced supervision housing, where they would be locked in their cells 17 hours a day.”
In December, the mayor’s task force provided a concrete outline for reform that attempts to reach beyond prisons to other parts of the system in hopes of breaking the cycle of incarceration. The plan also contains a strategy for ‘multi-agency teams’ to oversee implementation, measure progress and hold people and agencies accountable. Here are some of the more-promising and immediate changes listed in the task force report: Continue reading
In December, the New York Times ran a story on a sadly historic event:
The first Rikers Island correction officer to be tried for civil rights abuses in more than a decade was found guilty on Wednesday by a jury for his role in the death of an inmate in 2012.
Terrence Pendergrass could serve up to 10 years in federal prison for refusing to seek medical attention for Jason Echevarria, 25, a pretrial detainee, who cried out for help after swallowing a highly toxic packet of detergent that burned through his digestive tract.
Mr. Pendergrass was found guilty of one charge of violating the constitutional right of a prisoner to receive attention for serious medical needs. His lawyer, Samuel M. Braverman, said he would appeal the decision, which was handed down in Federal District Court in Manhattan.
This was the first time in over a decade that a Rikers corrections officer went to trial for civil rights violations. Before him was Roger Johnson in 1996, after he and several other Rikers guards beat inmates and then falsified reports.
After representing a man who refused medical attention for a dying and helpless prisoner, defense attorney Samuel Braverman said he believed it was “a very tough time for a law enforcement officer to be on trial.” He told reporters he felt the recent protests against police brutality in the city ‘influenced the jury’ and said he thought the jury was trying to ‘compensate for other systemic issues at Rikers.’
While I’m willing to give Braverman the benefit of the doubt that these were more off-hand remarks meant to explain away the guilty verdict than they were honest, deep analyses of the system, these kinds of statements are revealing nonetheless.
If the protests are, in fact, moving juries to finally bring convictions against criminal Rikers guards, we should all go out and thank a protester today for bringing an end to an 18 year freeze in justice for inmates. But it remains to be seen whether this is an isolated case or the beginning of a thaw in legal accountability for Rikers officers. If it does continue, there is little doubt in my mind that we can expect to see the same reaction from them as we have from the NYPD and its unions. Rikers Island has its own history of lashing out against threats to their impunity that bares striking resemblance to the actions of the NYPD in recent months. Continue reading
A new report by New York City’s Department of Investigation found rampant security violations on Rikers Island that allowed corrections officers and staff to sell contraband such as weapons, alcohol and narcotics to inmates for a sizable profit. DOI has been investigating the Department of Corrections since early January and plans to release a full report by the end of the year.
Security is so lax and inconsistent at Rikers facilities that a high schooler could get through the checkpoints without a problem. Smuggling vodka in a Poland Springs bottle? That’s the oldest trick in the book! But if you’re feeling lazy, lying works, too: one undercover investigator was able to smuggle contraband past a checkpoint by telling the security guard he had already emptied his pockets and didn’t need to do it again.
Here’s how the DOI described the ease with which CO’s and staff could make it through security with prohibited items: Continue reading