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kleinnasty teeth. Pierced lungs. Broken bones. For several years, New York State officials have been documenting the effects of attacks by hundreds of prison guards on detainees.
But when the State Department of Corrections tried to use the data to shoot guards, it failed 90 percent of the time, according to research by The Marshall Project.
This article was written in collaboration withFrom the New York Times.
A 2010 review of prison disciplinary records found more than 290 instances where the New York State Department of Corrections and Human Services attempted to fire officers or supervisors, said physical assault on inmates or assault for cover-up, ranging from gang assault to withholding food. The agency considered these employees to be a threat to prison security.
However, officers were expelled in only 28 cases. The state has tried to fire the bodyguard for using excessive force in three separate incidents over three years - and failed each time. He remains on the payroll of the state prison.
An officer who broke his baton by beating a prisoner 35 times, even after handcuffing him, was not released. Even the guards who beat an inmate at Attica Prison so badly that it took 13 staples to close the holes in his skull. Nor the policemen who beat up a mentally ill man and wounded him from face to groin. The man hanged himself the next day.
In dozens of documented cases of serious injury to prisoners, including three deaths, the agency did not even try to punish officers, according to state documents.
For decades, the operation of the prison disciplinary system has been hidden from the public under the Secrecy Act passed at the behest of powerful state law enforcement unions. But after the legislature repealed that bill in 2020, the Marshall Project has compiled more than 5,600 files of disciplinary cases against corrections officers - on issues ranging from physically abusing inmates to sleeping on the job.
Experts say the figures likely reflect only a fraction of the violence used by guards in the New York prison system. Many prisoners do not complain because they fear reprisals or they will not believe. And in most of the state's 44 prisons, officers do not wear body cameras, which sometimes helps to prove abuse. The figures do not detail attacks by prisoners against officers, which the department and the guards union say have increased in recent years.
The main reason why the prison system was so hard to get rid of the guards is because of the agreement signed by the state with the labor union in 1972. The agreement requires every effort to ensure that the dismissed officer is subjected to binding arbitration involving an external arbitrator hired by the union and the state - a system that the union has successfully retained in subsequent contracts. Only a court can set aside arbitral awards.
In abuse cases, arbitrators ruled in favor of officers three-quarters of the time, according to a Marshall Project review of nearly 120 decisions. Arbitrators, most of whom are lawyers, often said that the evidence provided by the state was insufficient or that the testimony of prisoners was inconclusive.
Instead of going to arbitration, the state sometimes drops charges or officers decide to resign or retire. Guards accused of mistreatment are often suspended without pay, with three months being the most common, according to an analysis.
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The abuse by the guards not only left prisoners with permanent injuries. It also exposed the corrections department to liability in lawsuits. According to The Marshall Project, the state has paid more than $18 million in lawsuits involving excessive force.
The poor performance of probation officers was not limited to cases of excessive force. In all, since 2010, the corrections department has attempted to expel staff from the school nearly 4,000 times for violations such as chronic tardiness and drug use. This was only successful in 7% of the cases.
The agency said it takes the accountability of officers seriously and has "zero tolerance" for violence in its prisons.
Daniel F. Martuscello III, deputy executive commissioner of the Department of Corrections, said in an interview that the number of officers accused of abuse is a small subset of the department's 16,000 wardens.
"Especially in extreme cases, we want to go all out," Martuscello said.
He said the overall number of dismissals was low in part because department officials agreed to less harsh sentences than they originally requested, as prosecutors do.
Many agents "do a lot of wonderful things in our system," added Martucello, "helping trapped people."
New York State Correctional Officers and the Police Benefits Association represent the guards. The chairman, Michael Powers, said in a statement that the union's job was to "negotiate fundamental rights to due process in employment decisions". While the small number of bad cops responsible for wrongdoing should be held accountable, he added, "the association vigorously defends its members against false accusations from the imprisoned community, and the neutral side makes decisions based on presented facts and evidence."
The union said officers are facing an increasing number of assaults on prisoners, even though the prison system defines assault broadly,counting incidents that do not involve physical contact or injury. The department has also seen an increase in staff and prisoner injuries since 2020. FederalThis was reported by the Bureau of Labor Statisticsthat prison officers have one of the highest rates of work-related injury and illness, with injuries often resulting from confrontations with inmates.
TThe case of Harold Scott shows how difficult it is to fire guards who they believe have mistreated prisoners.
In June 2019, Scott had just started a 90-day sentence at Willard Drug Treatment Campus in the Finger Lakes region for a parole violation after serving time for burglary and assault.
He got into an argument with a guard over the number of tapes on his frames. When the officer, Timothy Downs, punched him in the face, Scott said he had punched the guard. Investigators said what followed was a "criminal street gang".I will write later, with guards punching and kicking Scott even after handcuffing him behind his back.
Doctors at a nearby hospital determined that Scott had life-threatening injuries, including a punctured lung, and placed him in intensive care.
Disciplinary cases for guards can be initiated in a number of ways, including a telephone tip, a letter, a complaint from an inmate, or a report from superiors. It's unclear who reported Scott's beating, but detectives spoke to him at the hospital the next day.
Officers told investigators they did not know how Scott was injured, according to records. Downs, the officer who confronted Scott about the tapes, said the prisoner hit him first and then knocked Scott to the ground.
According to the guards' written reports, they stopped using force after Scott was handcuffed. Investigators concluded that the reports were falsified and that the officers "conspired and created a false narrative to cover up the beating."noting that the documentswere "identical in significant parts".
Officials decided to fire agents who did not respond to calls, emails, and certified letters requesting comment from The Marshall Project. Their lawyer declined to comment.
The union challenged the waivers before separate arbitrators, arguing that none of the state's witnesses saw the attack and that Scott lacked credibility. His criminal history of assaults and burglaries and altercations with prison officers in 2002 meant he was not a "good guy," union lawyers wrote.
In all cases, the arbitrators agreed that Scott was assaulted, but said the evidence did not show who did it. They did not find the guard responsible for the attack, but tried three to cover it up. these officers were suspended for at least six months. A fourth officer had previously agreed to the suspension.
Following the beating, Scott was charged with assault and battery and held in solitary confinement for months. The incident left him with permanent scars, he said in an interview. Scott, 44, has trouble breathing and speaks softly because it hurts to speak.
In December 2021, Scott filed a lawsuit against the police officers whom he allegedly beat him. In a voice as soft as a whisper, he said, "I want to be heard."
TAt the end of March, the contract of the prison officers' union expired. Governor Kathy Hotchul's office is negotiating a new deal, and a spokeswoman said she hoped to reach an agreement with the union soon.
"The Hotchul Government strongly condemns all forms of violence," spokeswoman Hazel Crampton-Hayes wrote in an email, adding that the office will continue to work with the prison agency "to increase security throughout the system."
In the past, the union has exercised considerable political influence, especially in rural communities where prisons and prison staff reside. He put up billboards and held regular press conferences opposing restrictions on the use of solitary confinement and drawing attention to attacks on officers.
The union has managed to protect its members' jobs, even though the prison population has almost halved since 2010 and the state has closed 20 prisons. The number of officers fell by about 22 percent, leaving the state with roughly one guard for every two inmates, one of the highest staff numbers in the country.
According to an analysis by the Marshall Project, Guardsmen earned an average of $87,000 last year.salary data from the Empire Center for Public Policy.
In 2018, Democrats took control of the state legislature and some were critical of the Department of Corrections' failure to prosecute officers accused of abuse.
"It's a structural cultural problem in the department," said Senator Julia Salazar of D-Brooklyn, chair of the corrections oversight committee. "It's just a massive betrayal of public trust."
But previous attempts to give the Department of Corrections more power to discipline officers have failed.
W 2016 r. New York Timesreported that state officials had promised to intensify investigations into the brutalityafter an arbitrator reinstated an officer with back pay, although a guard was caught on video repeatedly beating a prisoner lying on the floor. Juryacquitted the guard of the attackhowever, attacks on prisoners continued.
Two years later, Governor Andrew Cuomopushing legislationgive the prison commissioner the power to discharge officers, but the plan fell through after opposition from the Assembly and Senate.
In 2019, government officials were negotiatingrare changeon the disciplinary system: new three-member arbitration boards for serious cases, which could give the state more firefighting powers; But this system was never used. a prison spokesman blamed the coronavirus pandemic.
A powerful union can undermine prison security by burdening the disciplinary process, said Steve J. Martin, who has worked as a correctional officer across the country and is now a judge superintendent of New York's Rikers Island prisons.
Officers "know they can beat the system more often," Martin said. "This is how you develop those cultures where excessive violence occurs on a regular basis."Introductory Statement Subscribe to our daily newsletter for the best criminal justice news.
WSince detainees cannot count on the state to take disciplinary action against officers accused of abuse, many have turned to the courts for help.
When Karl Taylor, an inmate at Sullivan Correctional Facility, died in 2015, his family sued,alleged guards beat himbecause he refused to clean his cell. The state agreed to a $5 million trial and agreed to install cameras at the prison, which is located near Monticello, New York. But the department did not file disciplinary charges against any of the officers involved. The agency noted that the grand jury did not indict the guards.
The Marshall Project identified more than 160 excessive force lawsuits that the state lost or settled with $18.5 million in damages. Department of Corrections records show that officers attempted to discipline an officer on only 20 occasions. They fired six guards. More than 65 police officers have been charged in numerous lawsuits.
Of the hundreds of lawsuits that the state has settled or lost over 10 years on behalf of the corrections office,161reported physical abuse of prisoners by guards. IN20of these cases, the department fined one guard.
Only six were released.
While plea bargains are not admissions of guilt, they can serve as an indicator of abuse: prisoners must provide sufficient evidence of wrongdoing for their lawsuit to survive the first appeal in court.
Prisoners face major obstacles in pursuing abuse claims. Many such lawsuits are dismissed, often due to procedural errors or lack of evidence. Few private lawyers take on cases that are difficult to win and rarely financially viable. In 23 suits, inmates agreed to $1,000 or less.
Inmates often have to represent themselves before experienced lawyers from the General Prosecutor's Office, who defend both the Prison and the officers.
Data shows that nearly a third of payouts in violent lawsuits went to prisoners who acted as their lawyers.
Winning a case behind bars is a remarkable achievement, says Karen L. Murtagh, executive director of Prisoners' Legal Services in New York, which provides inmates with attorneys. "They can't afford a specialist," he said. "They never tried. They don't know how to pick a jury."
But in cases where an inmate can get an attorney, the results can be dramatic. The attack that led Nick Magalios to file a lawsuit began when officers at Fishkill Correctional Facility in New York's Hudson Valley yelled at him for hugging and kissing his wife during what was legally a prison visit.
Officer Mathew Peralta, who reprimanded Magalios, then knocked him to the ground, kicking and punching him while another guard held him down and a third officer watched, according to testimony in the civil trial.
Photos of Magalios taken on that day in September 2017 showed bruises on his back and knees. He said he needed surgery to repair the shoulder injured in the attack. Prisons launched an investigation but, citing insufficient evidence, never brought disciplinary charges against the officers. They're still working at Fishkill.
Peralta and the other rangers did not respond to calls, emails or certified letters seeking comment.
State attorneys called Magalios' claims "fantasy." Peralta and another security guard testified that they never had contact with Magalio, who was convicted of burglary in 2014 and denied using force.
A federal jury awarded Magalios $1 million in 2021. Judge Kathy Schäuble reduced that amount to $550,000 - which is closer to previous juries' verdicts on prison abuse in this judicial district. Both parties appealed.
Schäuble wrote in the warrant that the agents lied many times, and shehe called Peralta's testimony "ridiculous."Thenwas describedthe lawsuit as "one of the strongest cases of excessive force I have seen in my years on the bench."
He urged prison officials to declare the attack on Magalios a "premeditated crime" in order to force the officers to pay the damages themselves.
"I cannot think of a more effective deterrent to future misconduct," the judge wrote. It didn't happen. Project Marshall uncovered only two lawsuits involving excessive force that required officers to contribute some of their own money. for the rest, taxpayers were on the hook.
Magalios, who is now out of prison and runs an asset management firm, said in an interview that he appreciated the jury's decision in his favor but was disappointed that no guards were punished.
"You can attack a prisoner," he said, "and there will be no consequences."
For the Marshall Project
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