Lawsuits Suggest Pattern of Rikers Guards Looking Other Way – New York Times


When two guards were accused last month of encouraging inmates in one Rikers Island jail to police themselves, leading to beatings and in one case the killing of an inmate, correction officials called the situation “an aberration” and said they had not seen such a case in other units involving other guards.

But New York City has been sued in recent years by more than a half-dozen Rikers inmates claiming to have been the victims of beatings by prisoners while guards looked the other way, or worse, ordered the attacks. The city settled one case for $500,000, and another for just under $100,000. A new lawsuit was filed Tuesday.

And last year, Bronx prosecutors charged that a Rikers guard ordered six inmates to beat two prisoners; one victim was hospitalized with a collapsed lung. The guard has pleaded not guilty.

None of the cases include allegations on the scale of those announced last month by officials in the Bronx district attorney’s office, who said that the two Rikers guards had recruited inmates over three months last year to serve as “managers, foot soldiers and enforcers” to maintain order in a housing unit for adolescent men. The guards are also accused of training the inmates in how to restrain and assault their victims, and deciding where and when attacks would occur.

But the pattern of cases suggests that city correction officials have been aware of a problem in which Rikers guards have acquiesced or encouraged violence among inmates.

“These are institutions where inmate activity is monitored 24 hours a day, and it’s astonishing that this kind of behavior should go on for so long unchecked,” said Jonathan Chasan, a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society’s prisoners’ rights project, which is co-counsel in the new suit that was filed on Tuesday.

The city’s correction commissioner, Martin F. Horn, said in an interview that his agency was aware of the earlier cases and that he believed that steps had been taken to increase security and make it easier for the authorities to identify corrupt guards and inmates.

“I think it would be a mistake to say that the city was asleep at the switch because I don’t think we were,” Mr. Horn said.

“One could question whether the steps that we took were sufficiently effective. Certainly we are looking back, and we are concerned, and we want to learn from this and step up our efforts and review what we’ve done and say, ‘Was it sufficient? Was it adequate? Was it effective?’ ”

In the case last month, the Bronx district attorney announced charges against three Rikers correction officers and a dozen inmates in connection with what they said was a criminal extortion ring that included assaults, larceny and other crimes that occurred between July and October 2008. The charges followed an investigation into the beating death of an 18-year-old inmate, Christopher Robinson, on Oct. 18 after, the authorities said, he refused to go along with the ring.

Two officers, Michael McKie and Khalid Nelson, were charged with enterprise corruption and were accused of leading the ring; neither was charged with participating in the death of Mr. Robinson. Both men have pleaded not guilty. A third officer was also charged with conspiracy.

There have been at least seven lawsuits filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan accusing guards of complicity or acquiescence in inmate violence at Rikers, a complex of 10 detention facilities which, along with several other jails around the city, hold about 13,000 prisoners, most of whom are pretrial detainees.

None of the seven suits have gone to trial. In the three that were settled, the city admitted no liability or wrongdoing.

The $500,000 settlement, reached in 2007, concerned a 2003 assault on an inmate named Donald Jackson.

His lawyer, Andrew B. Stoll, said Mr. Jackson was punched by another prisoner with the acquiescence of a guard, that his client fell and hit his head. Although he “was bleeding badly, and unconscious,” the lawsuit said, “the officers delayed in obtaining medical treatment.”

In another case, the city agreed last year to pay $97,500 to Schmi Caballero, who said in his suit that a guard became angry that he was taking too long on a call to his mother.

As punishment, the guard had another inmate attack him with a broomstick, the suit said, and Mr. Caballero was beaten in the face, and left with a broken nose and blurred vision.

Mr. Caballero’s lawyer, Joel Berger, said he believes gangs were being allowed to control certain Rikers units. “Sometimes the officers are afraid to do something about it,” he said.

Another lawyer, Julia P. Kuan, whose firm has two pending suits involving Rikers assaults, in 2006 and 2007, said, “The city’s been on notice because these lawsuits have been pending for quite some time, and the fact patterns are so similar.”

In one case, a guard unlocked the cell of an inmate named Camillo Douglas, allowing three prisoners who were known members of the Bloods gang to enter, the suit said. They struck Mr. Douglas repeatedly with brooms and metal shanks; they also attacked another inmate who rushed to his aid, the suit said.

Norman Seabrook, president of the union representing about 8,000 correction officers, declined to comment on the suits, except to say he believes that the officers are innocent of wrongdoing. He said that to the extent problems exist, “the managers in this agency are not properly supervising and training officers.”

The latest suit describes an assault in March 2007 by a prisoner that the authorities say was used by guards as an enforcer in the Rikers jail for adolescent males, the Robert N. Davoren center. The inmate, Tyreek Shuford, was beaten and left with his head bleeding and then was not allowed to visit the infirmary for two days, the suit said.

Jonathan S. Abady, another of Mr. Shuford’s lawyers, said the case suggested there was “an intractable culture of permissiveness” among officers, “coupled with a disturbing attitude of denial by higher level supervisors.”

Mr. Horn disputed contentions that his agency was not addressing security, saying the agency was moving in the right direction, and when compared with jails in other large cities, “we are safer by far.”

John Eligon contributed reporting.