The Legal Aid Society filed a federal lawsuit in May to stop unnecessary and excessive force inflicted upon inmates in New York City jails by Department of Correction staff. The plaintiffs include 11 current and former inmates in New York City jails who charged that DOC officials have tolerated and even condoned unprovoked beatings of inmates by guards. The 89-page complaint was filed in the Federal District Court in Manhattan by the Prisoners' Rights Project and the law firms of Ropes & Gray and Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady. The lawsuit seeks reforms in how DOC selects, trains and disciplines personnel and how it investigates brutality complaints. The lawsuit also seeks damages for the individual plaintiffs, all of whom suffered severe injuries when beaten by DOC uniformed staff.
The complaint points out that "the pattern of brutality in the City's jails is deeply entrenched. In five class actions and scores of individual lawsuits in 25 years, New York City Department of Correction inmates have come before this court alleging a pattern of brutality in New York City's jails."
The New York Times
May 29, 2012
Lawsuit Accuses City’s Jails of Condoning Inmate Abuse
By Benjamin Weiser
Eleven current and former inmates in New York City’s jails have filed a lawsuit charging that correction officials have tolerated and even condoned the unprovoked beatings of inmates by guards, resulting in serious injuries to prisoners and millions of dollars in legal settlements paid by the city.
The 89-page complaint, filed last week in Federal District Court in Manhattan by the Legal Aid Society and two private law firms, seeks class-action status to cover almost all of the city’s thousands of current inmates, and future inmates, as well.
“The pattern of brutality in the city’s jails is deeply entrenched,” the lawsuit says, noting that five previous class-actions, dating to the early 1990s, exposed “a culture of routine and institutionalized staff violence against inmates.” But despite court orders and settlements, the suit says, “the abuse has continued.”
The suit names the city’s correction commissioner, Dora B. Schriro, as a defendant, along with other officials and officers who it says have “created and now perpetuate a policy of permitting uniformed staff to use unlawful, excessive force with impunity.”
Correction officials responded sharply to the lawsuit’s assertions. “To suggest, much less allege, that the department condones improper uses of force in any way ignores the reality of the department’s many actions to the contrary,” a spokeswoman, Sharman Stein, said.
Ms. Stein noted that the Correction Department admitted more than 85,000 inmates annually. The suit “argues that 11 incidents over the past several years are indicative of an infirm pattern and practice,” she said. “It categorically is not.”
Ms. Stein added that the department’s policies limited the use of force to situations like ending inmate-on-inmate violence, defending staff members from a physical attack or “when there is no practical alternative available to prevent serious physical injury to staff, visitors, inmates or any other person.”
The lawsuit describes what it depicts as the unprovoked beatings of the 11 plaintiffs. It says that most of those beaten had to be hospitalized, with some needing surgery. The traumas inflicted included spinal injury, broken bones in the face and wrist, perforated eardrums and concussions, the suit says.
In one 2011 case, according to the suit, a Rikers Island inmate, Shameik Smallwood, was taken by correction officers to a windowless room after being suspected of transferring contraband in a visitation area. The suit says he was handcuffed behind his back and thrown to the floor face down. Officers then punched, kicked and stomped on him, the suit says, adding that he lost consciousness and later had to have facial surgery.
Although there are surveillance cameras in the jails, the suit says that “correction officers routinely escort inmates to unmonitored areas before beating them.”
The plaintiffs are also represented by the firms Ropes & Gray and Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady. Beyond damages, the suit seeks reforms in how the Correction Department selects, trains and disciplines personnel, and in how it investigates brutality complaints.