In N.Y. Prisons, Guards Who Brutalize Prisoners Rarely Get Fired
Shattered teeth. Punctured lungs. Broken bones. Over a dozen years, New York State officials have documented the results of attacks by hundreds of prison guards on the people in their custody.
But when the state corrections department has tried to use this evidence to fire guards, it has failed 90 percent of the time, an investigation by The Marshall Project has found.
The review of prison disciplinary records found more than 290 cases in which the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision tried to fire officers or supervisors it said physically abused prisoners or covered up mistreatment that ranged from group beatings to withholding food. The agency considered these employees a threat to the safety and security of prisons.
Yet officers were ousted in just 28 cases. The state tried to fire one guard for using excessive force in three separate incidents within three years — and failed each time. He remains on the state prisons payroll.
An officer who broke his baton hitting a prisoner 35 times, even after the man was handcuffed, was not fired. Neither were the guards who beat a prisoner at Attica Correctional Facility so badly that he needed 13 staples to close gashes in his scalp. Nor were the officers who battered a mentally ill man, injuring him from face to groin. The man hanged himself the next day.
In dozens of documented cases involving severe injuries of prisoners, including three deaths, the agency did not even try to discipline officers, state records show.
For decades, the workings of the prison discipline system had been hidden from public view under a secrecy law adopted at the urging of the state’s powerful law enforcement unions. But after the Legislature repealed that law in 2020, The Marshall Project obtained more than 5,600 records of disciplinary cases against prison employees, for issues ranging from physical abuse of prisoners to sleeping on the job, dating to 2010.
The records probably reflect only a fraction of the violence guards have inflicted in New York’s corrections system, experts said. Many prisoners do not file complaints because they fear retaliation or not being believed. And in most of the state’s 44 prisons, officers do not wear body cameras, which sometimes help prove abuse. These records do not detail prisoner attacks on officers, which the department and the guards’ union said have increased in recent years.
A key reason the prison system finds it so hard to get rid of guards is the contract the state signed in 1972 with the union. The agreement requires any effort to fire an officer to go through binding arbitration, using an outside arbitrator hired by the union and the state — a system the union has successfully kept in subsequent contracts. Only a court can overturn arbitration decisions.
In abuse cases, the arbitrators ruled in favor of officers three-quarters of the time, a Marshall Project review of nearly 120 decisions shows. Arbitrators, most of whom are lawyers, often said the state’s evidence was insufficient or found prisoners’ testimony unconvincing.
Rather than go to arbitration, the state sometimes withdraws charges, or officers choose to resign or retire. Guards accused of abuse are often suspended without pay — a three-month suspension is most common, the analysis found.
The state’s weak record on firing officers was not limited to cases of excessive force. Overall, the corrections department has tried to oust staff members almost 4,000 times since 2010, for such infractions as chronic tardiness and drug use. It succeeded in just 7 percent of the cases.
The agency said it takes officer accountability seriously and has “zero tolerance” for violence within its prisons.
Daniel F. Martuscello III, the corrections department’s executive deputy commissioner, said in an interview that the number of officers accused of abuse is a small subset of the department’s 16,000 guards.
“Certainly on egregious cases, we want to go all the way to termination,” Mr. Martuscello said.
He said that the overall firing rate was low in part because department officials have usually settled for less harsh punishments than they originally sought, just as prosecutors do.
Many officers are “doing a lot of great things within our system,” Mr. Martuscello added, “and helping incarcerated individuals.”
The New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association represents the guards. Its president, Michael Powers, said in a statement that the union’s job “is to negotiate fundamental due process rights in employment decisions.” While the small number of bad officers responsible for wrongdoing should be held accountable, he added, the union “vigorously defends its members from false allegations by the incarcerated community, and a neutral party renders decisions based on the facts and evidence presented.”
The union has said officers have faced a growing number of assaults by prisoners, though the corrections system has defined assault broadly, counting incidents involving no physical contact or injury. The department has also noted a jump in injuries to staff and prisoners since 2020. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that corrections officers have one of the highest rates of job-related injury and illness, with the injuries often stemming from confrontations with prisoners.
‘I want to be heard’
The case of Harold Scott shows how corrections department officials can struggle to fire guards they believe have brutalized prisoners.
In June 2019, Mr. Scott had just begun a 90-day sentence at the Willard Drug Treatment Campus, in the Finger Lakes region, for violating parole after serving time for burglary and assault.
He got into a dispute with a guard over the number of rubber bands in his dreadlocks. When the officer, Timothy Downs, slapped him in the face, Mr. Scott said, he hit the guard back. What followed was a “criminal street gang-style beating,” investigators would later write, with guards punching and kicking Mr. Scott even after his hands had been cuffed behind his back.
Doctors at a nearby hospital determined that Mr. Scott had life-threatening injuries, including a punctured lung, and put him into intensive care, records show.
Discipline cases for guards can start in many ways, including a phoned-in tip, a letter, a prisoner’s complaint or a report from supervisors. It is not clear who reported the beating of Mr. Scott, but investigators spoke to him at the hospital the next day.
Officers told investigators that they did not know how Mr. Scott was injured, records show. Officer Downs, who confronted Mr. Scott about the rubber bands, said the prisoner had hit him first, so he had tackled Mr. Scott to the ground.
Guards’ written reports said they stopped using force as soon as they handcuffed Mr. Scott. 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 documents were “identical in important sections.”
Officials decided to fire the officers, who did not respond to phone calls, emails and certified letters requesting comment from The Marshall Project. Their lawyer declined to comment.
The union challenged the firings in front of separate arbitrators, arguing that none of the state’s witnesses saw the attack and that Mr. Scott was not credible. His criminal history of assault and burglary, and an altercation with officers at a county jail in 2002, meant “he is not a good guy,” the union lawyers wrote.
In all the cases, arbitrators agreed that Mr. Scott had been attacked but said the evidence did not prove who did it. They did not find any guards responsible for the assault but ruled that three covered it up; those officers were suspended for at least six months. A fourth officer had previously agreed to a suspension.
After his beating, Mr. Scott was accused of assault and violent conduct and kept for months in solitary confinement. The incident left him with lasting injuries, he said in an interview. Mr. Scott, 44, has difficulty breathing and speaks softly, he said, because it hurts to talk.
In December 2021, Mr. Scott filed a lawsuit against the officers who he said beat him. In a voice as quiet as a whisper, he said, “I want to be heard.”
‘Systemic cultural problem’
The corrections officers’ union contract expired at the end of March. The office of Gov. Kathy Hochul is negotiating a new contract, and a spokeswoman said it hoped to reach an agreement with the union soon.
“Gov. Hochul strongly condemns violence in all forms,” the spokeswoman, Hazel Crampton-Hays, wrote in an email. She added that the office will continue to work with the corrections agency “to improve safety throughout the system.”
In the past, the union has wielded significant political influence, especially in rural communities that are home to prisons and their workers. It has put up billboards and held regular news conferences opposing limits on solitary confinement and calling attention to assaults on officers.
The union has succeeded in protecting members’ jobs even as the number of people incarcerated has plunged by nearly half since 2010 and the state shut two dozen prisons. The number of officers has fallen about 22 percent, leaving the state with about one guard for every two prisoners, among the highest staffing ratios in the country.
Guards made an average of $87,000 last year, though pay of more than $100,000 was not uncommon, according to a Marshall Project analysis of payroll data from the Empire Center for Public Policy.
In 2018, Democrats won control of the State Legislature, and some of them have been critical of the corrections department’s failure to discipline officers accused of abuse.
“This is a systemic cultural problem within the department,” said State Senator Julia Salazar, a Brooklyn Democrat who chairs the committee that oversees prisons. “It’s just a massive betrayal of the public trust.”
But past efforts to give the corrections department more power to discipline its employees failed.
In 2016, The New York Times reported that state officials vowed to beef up investigations into brutality after an arbitrator reinstated an officer with back pay even though the guard had been caught on video repeatedly punching a prisoner lying on the floor. A jury acquitted the guard of assault, however, and attacks on prisoners continued.
Two years later, Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed legislation to give the corrections commissioner the power to dismiss officers, but the plan withered under opposition from the Assembly and Senate.
In 2019, state officials negotiated a rare change to the disciplinary system: new three-person arbitration panels for serious cases, which might have given the state more power to fire guards. But that system has never been used; a corrections spokesman blamed the coronavirus pandemic.
A powerful union can undermine safety in prisons by gumming up the disciplinary process, said Steve J. Martin, who has worked as a consultant for corrections facilities across the country and is now the court-ordered monitor for the New York City jails on Rikers Island.
Officers “know they can beat the system more often than not,” Mr. Martin said. “That’s how you develop these cultures where you have frequent instances of excessive force.”
Turning to the courts
With prisoners unable to rely on the state to discipline officers accused of abuse, many have turned to the courts for help.
When Karl Taylor, a prisoner at Sullivan Correctional Facility, died in 2015, his family sued, alleging guards had beaten him for refusing to clean his cell. The state settled during the trial for $5 million and agreed to install cameras at the prison, which is near Monticello, N.Y. But the department did not file disciplinary actions against any of the officers involved. The agency noted that a grand jury did not indict the guards.
The Marshall Project identified more than 160 excessive-force lawsuits that the state lost or settled, paying $18.5 million in damages. The corrections department’s records show that officials attempted to discipline an officer in just 20 of those cases. They fired six guards. More than 65 officers were defendants in multiple suits.
While settlements are not an admission of guilt, they can serve as an indicator of abuse: The prisoners must provide enough evidence of misconduct for their lawsuit to survive initial court challenges.
Prisoners face steep obstacles when pursuing lawsuits over abuse. Many such suits are dismissed, often for procedural mistakes or a lack of evidence. Few private lawyers take such cases, which are hard to win and seldom financially rewarding. In 23 suits, prisoners settled for $1,000 or less.
Often, incarcerated people end up representing themselves against experienced lawyers from the state attorney general’s office, which defends both the corrections department and the officers.
Nearly a third of the payouts in excessive-force lawsuits went to prisoners who acted as their own lawyers, records show.
To win a case from behind bars is an extraordinary feat, said Karen L. Murtagh, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, which provides lawyers to incarcerated people. “They can’t afford an expert,” she said. “They’ve never litigated before. They don’t know how to pick a jury.”
But in the cases in which a prisoner can get a lawyer, the results can be striking. The attack that prompted Nick Magalios to file his lawsuit began when officers at Fishkill Correctional Facility, in New York’s Hudson Valley, yelled at him for hugging and kissing his wife hello during a visit, which prison rules allowed.
Afterward, Officer Mathew Peralta, who had reprimanded Mr. Magalios, knocked him to the floor and kicked and punched him as another guard held him down and a third officer watched, according to testimony in the civil trial.
Photos of Mr. Magalios taken that day, in September 2017, showed bruises on his back and knees. He said he needed surgery to fix a shoulder injured in the attack. The corrections department opened an investigation but, citing insufficient evidence, never filed disciplinary charges against the officers. They still work at Fishkill.
Officer Peralta and the other guards did not respond to phone calls, emails or certified letters seeking comment.
State lawyers called Mr. Magalios’s allegations “a fiction.” Officer Peralta and another guard testified that they had never interacted with Mr. Magalios, who was imprisoned in 2014 for burglary, and they denied using any force.
A federal jury awarded Mr. Magalios $1 million in 2021. Judge Cathy Seibel reduced it to $550,000 — closer to previous jury verdicts for prison abuse in that court district. Both sides have appealed.
Judge Seibel wrote in an order that the officers lied repeatedly, and she called Officer Peralta’s testimony “laughable.” She described the lawsuit as “one of the strongest cases for excessive force I have seen in my years on the bench.”
She urged corrections officials to deem the assault on Mr. Magalios “intentional wrongdoing” to force the officers to pay damages themselves.
“I cannot think of a more effective tool for deterring future misconduct,” the judge wrote. It did not happen. The Marshall Project found only two excessive force lawsuits in which officers had to contribute some of their own money; taxpayers were on the hook for the rest.
Mr. Magalios, who is now out of prison and runs a property management company, said in an interview that he appreciated the jury’s ruling in his favor but was frustrated that no guards were punished.
“You can commit gang assault on an inmate,” he said, “and there’s no repercussions.”
Ilica Mahajan contributed reporting.
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