How a 'blue wall' in New York State prisons protects abusive guards (2023)

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BEACON, NY — As prison guards described in their records, there was a bit of a stir the day they took Chad Stanbro to the dental clinic at a nearby hospital.

Stanbrough, a prisoner, was sedated but agitated during the procedure, waved at the dentist and kicked a corrections officer in the stomach, they wrote. A guard and a colleague quickly restrained him and took him back to Fishkill Correctional Facility, where, according to a senior officer's account, Stanbro "reported no injuries."

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However, key details were missing, including information that Stanbro was paralyzed during the incident. The third officer rushed into the clinic's operating room and knelt on Stanbrough's neck until he was unable to move, according to later court testimony. This ranger asked his colleagues not to include him in their reports, they confessed at trial and they did.

Although Stanbrough's injuries were obvious - he was unable to walk or move his body from the neck down - the officer who injured him escaped discipline. However, Stanbrough was charged with assault and placed in solitary confinement after leaving hospital. In July, a federal jury awarded him $2.1 million in damages.

Such cover-ups are common in the New York State prison system, according to a Marshall Project study of thousands of pages of court documents, arbitration reports, and officers' disciplinary records.

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At Auburn Correctional Facility, west of Syracuse, guards kicked a man, called him a racial slur, and broke three of his ribs in what the judge called "brutal assault." At Elmira Penitentiary, near the Pennsylvania border, officers handcuffed a man and threw him down a flight of stairs, smashing his skull. At the Clinton Penitentiary, near the Canadian border, guards kicked and punched a handcuffed man, breaking his ribs. In all three cases, employees filed false reports to cover up the attacks, according to court records, and were not punished.

The file shows how cover-ups can make it harder to hold officers accountable for using excessive force. They also reveal a typical scenario: guards often work in teams to cover up violent attacks, lying to investigators and official reports, then reporting their victims and sending them to solitary confinement.

The Marshall Project has collected disciplinary data on more than 290 cases where the corrections department attempted to fire guards or supervisors accused of abusing inmates. In nearly three-quarters of these cases, the bureau also accused officers of covering up misconduct, often in concert. The department sought to punish guards for incidents where one or more were accused of abuse while others lied to cover it up, on average every two months for 12 years.

When the guards abuse the prisoners

Several of the accused officers were fired, although many were suspended for several months.

The Marshall Project found and analyzed lawsuits related to violent incidents that the state lost or settled in the decade ending 2020. The Department sought not to punish officers in 88 percent of lawsuits, including some where prisoners were permanently injured or even the dead.

Half of the approximately 160 lawsuits allege that guards retaliated against inmates they injured. An employee at Sullivan Correctional Facility said the guards banged his head on the floor and handcuffed his face. At the Sing Sing Correctional Center, officers smashed a men's bowl. In both cases, prison officials accused the men of assault and sent them to solitary confinement. The state paid a total of $56,500 to settle the two lawsuits, but did not punish any of the officers involved, as investigators said they were unable to verify the allegations.

Daniel F. Martuscello III, deputy executive commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections and Human Services, declined to discuss individual cases, but said he was not surprised that cases of excessive force are often accompanied by false reports.

"There must be some manipulation of the facts," he said.

Michael Powers, president of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, did not respond to questions about the cover-up.

"Of the thousands of routine daily interactions between the incarcerated community and corrections officers who ensure the safety and security of anyone who works or is in prison," it said in a statement, "an extremely small percentage of bad actors are credited with the integrity of the justice system and judges responsible for crimes." must be held accountable for their actions."

Former New York Commissioner of Corrections, Brian Fisher, called the culture of officers hiding their offenses a "blue wall" - saying it is deeply ingrained in the workplace.

"Like the cops on the street, you rely on the guy watching you," Fisher said. "So if he does something stupid and comes in and says, 'Look, I want you to change the report a bit,' you're in a bad spot."

IIn March 2020, Officer Aaron Finn handcuffed an inmate at Green Haven Correctional Facility and repeatedly banged his head against a wall and steel bars.

A camera worn by Finn captured the attack that left prisoner Melvin Virgil limp and unconscious. Footage from another body camera shows the sergeant repeatedly asking, "Who put the handcuffs on?" and then "No one knows anything now?" while a group of cops stand silently.

Finn filed six misconduct charges against Virgil that day, which went straight to solitary. The guard claimed in his papers that he once struck Virgil after the prisoner broke one of his fingers while he was handcuffed. Another guard wrote that Virgil tried to kick the officers on the ground. Two other officers involved, including the sergeant who had previously asked for answers, made similar reports.

But the footage shows Finn hitting Virgil's head twice against the wall before lowering him to the floor and banging his head against the steel bars four times. As the officers claim Virgil kicked them, the video shows him passing out.

Body cam video of the attack on Melvin Virgil shows several discrepancies between the officer's reports and the footage.

Wideodomofony Jeesoo Park/The New York Times

A few weeks after the attack, detectives showed the video to two police officers and gave them a chance to correct their reports. They refused. Prison officials wanted to fire Finn, but did not file disciplinary charges against the other officers.

Finn resigned a year after the attack. In an unusual coincidence, he was later arrested in connection with the attack. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three months in prison in November. He did not respond to requests for comment.

Virgil, who was serving time for assault, robbery and assault, sued Finn and his colleagues last year. The guards denied the allegations and asked the judge to dismiss the case.

Another inmate accused Finn of a similar attack in 2015, when he said a guard handcuffed him and banged his head against a wall. Last year, the state paid $9,500 to settle the case.

A comprehensive look at cases such as Virgil's, where the vigilantes appear to be conspiring to cover up violent incidents, has only been possible recently. New York required that all disciplinary records of prison guards and police officers be kept secret. But the legislature changed the law in 2020, allowing The Marshall Project to obtain thousands of disciplinary records relating to alleged prison misconduct.

Data shows that even when the corrections department tried to fire officers for using excessive force or lying about it, the agency only succeeded 10 percent of the time.

TThe police effort to cover up the violent episode that left Stanbrough paralyzed was complicated by one major factor: the incident took place in a public hospital, not an isolated prison.

Fishkill guards, where Stanbro was serving a 10-year sentence for stealing a television and violating parole, took him to a dental clinic for prisoners in August 2018. hit the screen, according to court records. When he regained full consciousness, he later testified, the third officer, Kristofer Leonardo, pressed his knee to his neck while other guards held him down. The force acting on Stanbrough's spine paralyzed him, according to medical and forensic records.

After that, the other guards will testify, Leonardo asked them a favor: do not reveal his name in their official reports.

"He was an officer I respected," Officer Nadya Palou told the jury, explaining why she agreed to the request.

After Leonardo left the hospital, a security camera in the parking lot recorded Palou and his colleague lifting Stanbrough's emaciated body into a truck to drive back to Fishkill. They stopped along the way to support him, Palou later testified.

How a 'blue wall' in New York State prisons protects abusive guards (1)

Chad Stanbrough.

Thanks Kim Reddon

By the time officers returned to Fishkill, hospital staff had already called the prison to complain about the use of force, the prison superintendent testified.

The guards running Stanbro wrote in their official reports that he got into the van himself - they didn't know there was a video that could be shown otherwise. As requested, none of them mentioned Leonardo in their reports.

He testified that in the prison infirmary, a nurse and a captain accused Stanbrough of feigning injury. It wasn't until the nurse repeatedly stabbed him in the leg with a needle and received no response that the staff called an ambulance.

The helicopter took Stanbro back to Westchester Medical Center, the same hospital where Leonardo was kneeling on his neck. Doctors diagnosed quadriplegia and operated on the spine. He spent 12 days there.

Leonardo, who accompanied the men from a prison other than the dental clinic, did not report any use of force against Stanbrough. His supervisor at the Greene Correctional Center later became aware of the internal investigation and ordered the guard to complete the required paperwork. Leonardo wrote that he wrapped Stanbrough in a bear and helped him handcuff him after Stanbrough hit a guard. In court, Leonardo denied both the attack and the request that his name be removed from the reports.

How a 'blue wall' in New York State prisons protects abusive guards (2)

Chad Stanbrough was paralyzed when an officer knelt on his neck while other guards held him down. He was placed in a chair with a doctor at Fishkill Correctional Facility before being sent to the hospital for emergency back surgery.

United States District Court, Southern District of New York

TThe Guardians' stories collapsed in the process. In a rare concession, two officers admitted to jurors that they had lied, first omitting Leonard from their reports and then saying that Stanbrough himself had been in the van. The dentist testified that Stanbrough never tried to hit him or the guards.

State officials made no attempt to punish Leonard. The agency said Palou dropped pending disciplinary charges and fined the third officer $3,000. None of the officers responded to repeated requests for comment.

While guards do not routinely face the consequences of using excessive force against inmates, inmates often leave meetings not only injured, but also face administrative hearings that can lead to harsh sentences. After Stanbro was released from the hospital, guards charged him with assault. He got 40 days in solitary confinement. Still paralyzed, he was let out of his cell once a day for physiotherapy, he later testified.

Several attorneys, jurists and former prison administrators said that detectives often beat inmates and then accuse them of assault, even when inmates were seriously injured, as Stanbro did.

Guards at the Adirondack Correctional Facility, west of Lake Placid, beat a man and broke a rib. And a beating by officers at the Southport Correctional Centre, which closed last year, left the man with permanent damage to his arm and eye. In both cases, staff accused the men of assaulting them, and supervisors placed the detainees in solitary confinement. The convictions of both prisoners were overturned on appeal. They later sued and received six-figure damages. Two Southport officers were suspended for a year for their actions. None of the guards have been released.

Experts say guard attacks are almost certainly more frequent than disciplinary records show. Police officers exercise tremendous control over inmate lives by preventing inmates from reporting abuse, said Jennifer Scaife, executive director of the New York Correctional Association, a non-profit organization that oversees prisons. Scaife said she often hears from people who say they are being abused but are afraid that if they report it, the guards will turn against them.

"It's like, 'Oh, you want to do this to us? Check out how we can make your life hell," he said.

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kEvin Ryan, a former New York prison detective, stated that the guard culture and indifference of top management so effectively impeded his investigation that he eventually resigned.

"At some point, it just becomes a waste of time because no one is going to tell you the truth," says Ryan, who was a federal customs agent for 25 years before joining the corrections system in 2015.

Ryan pointed to the case of Roy Hariger, who was convicted of child sexual abuse in 2015. Hariger said a guard at the Attica Correctional Facility hit him on the back of the head with a stick, which paralyzed him. The attack occurred some time after a guard took him from the sergeant's office to his cell and before he arrived unconscious at the infirmary.

Ryan commissioned three researchers to search archives and interview employees.

The officers formed a united front and said they knew nothing or that Harriger had fallen in the shower. Critical files were missing. About a dozen employees refused to be questioned by the state police. Ryan said he never determined which guard attacked Harriger. No one was ever punished for the attack and no criminal charges were filed.

Hariger sued. During the trial, his lawyer asked the sergeant who worked in his cell and the infirmary sergeant who had escorted Harriger that day. Both sergeants had testified dozens of times they couldn't remember and never tried to find out.

How a 'blue wall' in New York State prisons protects abusive guards (3)

How a 'blue wall' in New York State prisons protects abusive guards (4)

wAttica Correctional Institution Roy Hariger said a guard hit him on the back of the head with a stick, which paralyzed him. Heather Ainsworth dla The Marshall Project
The road near the prison.
Heather Ainsworth dla The Marshall Project

The judge said she was shocked: The Department of Corrections, which "requires you to fill out paperwork for just about everything that goes on in the prison system, somehow failed to file paperwork related to this incident," she wrote.

Citing medical records, a judge ruled in November 2020 that Attica's staff story about Harriger falling into the shower was "fabricated." He earned nearly $2.4 million from it. He has been confined to a wheelchair since the attack and is unable to straighten the fingers of his right hand, which contract like claws and dig into the skin of his hands, according to court records.

Ryan said such attacks and cover-ups are crimes, and his office has referred more than a dozen cases to the state police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. These investigations almost never led to criminal charges against prison officials.

Ryan said the best way to force agents to break their code of silence would be to make them take an oath before a federal jury, where fraud leads to criminal charges such as perjury or lying to an FBI agent.

"Then split up the herd," Ryan said.

eatyears after a neck injury, Stanbrough was paroled, but has struggled since returning to live with his family in Elmira. After surgery and months of physiotherapy, he can now use his hands and arms. He can limp and only pick up light objects. According to testimony and court records, neuralgia regularly runs down his back from his triceps to his fingertips.

"I was a big, strong boy," he said in an interview.

Stanbrough struggled with mental health and substance abuse before going to prison. he said he had been consumed with anger and depression since the attack. He was released from prison in February after a psychotic episode.

He said he was concerned that none of the guards had been charged with the attack and the cover-up. He was questioned by the state police and the Westchester County District Attorney's Office, who closed the investigation without charging him.

Stanbrough said he was reluctant to wish anyone in prison, but believed the three officers should go to prison.

"It's the one thing everyone's afraid of," he said. "This is not the revenge I'm looking for. that's change."


For the Marshall Project

Reporting by Alysia Santo, Joseph Neff, Tom Meagher and Ilica Mahajan.

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Art direction and photo editing by Bo-Won Keum and Celina Fang.

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Edited by Leslie Eaton and Manuel Torres.

For the New York Times

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