July 9, 2014

Rikers Island Investigation Heats Up

New York City's Department of Investigation today arrested a corrections captain and two guards for assaulting an inmate at Rikers Island, beating him unconscious with a baton, and then falsifying records to cover up their misconduct. This was apparently not an isolated incident and more arrests are expected. It took well over 20 months for the arrests to occur, but better late than never.

According to the New York Times, the DOI Commissioner, Mark Peters, stated that the arrests followed a long-running investigation into “a pattern of lawless conduct at Rikers that must be brought under control,” and that “the victims here were not simply the injured inmate but the justice system itself, which cannot properly function when sworn law enforcement officers falsify documents to cover up crimes.” Tough talk. Let's hope there's something to it.

The three guards arrested were captain, Moises Simancas, and two guards, April Jackson and Tyrone Wint. Simancas had 16 years experience, while Jackson and Wint had been on the job for at least seven years each. Both are being prosecuted in Bronx Supreme Court on felony charges and are currently suspended.

The assault happened after Hurricane Sandy hit New York in late October 2012. Inmate Gabino Genao got mouthy with one of the guards. The guards decided a beat down was in order, so they went into Genao's cell, cuffed him, took him to another room, knocked him down, and beat the crap him out of him. During the rampage, one of the guards grabbed a baton and struck Genao repeatedly. The inmate, who was knocked out, suffered bruises that the Times says "were consistent with the imprint of a standard-issue baton used by the Correction Department."

The captain and the guards wrote up reports that failed to mention the baton and which the DOI says were “inconsistent with both the assault of the inmate and the injuries he sustained.” There's no great mystery here; the guards overreacted, realized they messed up, and then lied and tried to cover it up. It's the kind of thing that happens all the time, and usually the higher ups look away.

For instance, I once represented a juvenile inmate in custody for a very minor issue. Guards thought he was making too much noise in his cell, so three guys went in. He was pinned face down on his bed and his arm was pulled straight up behind him. One of the guards punched his upper arm just below the shoulder repeatedly until his humerus finally gave way, cracking loudly. It was a brutal assault by three grown men on a non-violent modestly sized 16 year-old boy. Investigators found my client was the victim of child abuse and that the officers' versions of events were fundamentally impossible. Two of the officers eventually resigned, one fought internal misconduct charges for a while and then resolved them with a deal that let him keep his job. No criminal charges were ever brought, or even contemplated, as far as I know.

This story is but one I could tell about guards who casually brutalize inmates, encourage other inmates to do so, are complicit in the sale of drugs in the jail, and who have no compunction about filing false reports and coercing colleagues to remain silent.

Unfortunately for these defendants, Mayor de Blasio has promised to reform jail oversight and the DOI is looking into what the Times say officials say is "a pattern of brutality, neglect and corruption among correction officers and supervisors that officials say is rampant at Rikers Island." This seems to be at least a semi-serious attempt at cleaning up at least some misconduct. Apparently the DOI referred at least 9 other corrections employees for prosecution based on an Investigation into contraband smuggling, brutality and corruption at Rikers Island, and the DOI expects more arrests.

Yes, jail is a rough place. It is filled with many violent and dangerous people, and bad things happen there. Being a C.O. is a tough job, no doubt. But that doesn't justify the criminality engaged in by some guards and supervisors, and the seeming acceptance of this misconduct by others. The line between jailors and the jailed can get blurry from time to time. Sometimes it's necessary to have a little clarity.

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