Medical privacy is not merely a sound idea, but the law. That’s why there are no video cameras in the clinic at Rikers Island. Makes perfect sense, except when guards order the staff out of a treatment room in the clinic and beat a prisoner. That makes perfect sense too, if you happen to be a prison guard looking to beat a prisoner without being captured on video.
Even on the most violent cellblocks at Rikers Island, the beatings were astonishing in their severity. Two inmates were strapped to gurneys, taken to a clinic in a mental health unit and beaten so badly by correction officers that blood splattered the walls and witnesses described feeling sick to their stomachs.
Several witnesses, including civilian staff members, were so appalled that, in a rare occurrence at Rikers, they came forward to tell investigators what they had seen on that night in December 2012.
How heartwarming that the beatings were severe enough that civilian staff members spoke out. So how many beatings did they witness that weren’t that severe, where they said nothing? Where is the line between hero whistleblower and complicit toady?
On Monday, a damning report by the office of Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, about the “deep-seated culture of violence” against adolescent inmates at Rikers Island singled out the episodes as particularly deplorable.
A damning report is good. A prosecution, since Preet is a prosecutor, might have been better, but then, Preet can’t cover every wrong committed within the Southern District of New York, not when there are marijuana conspiracies to bust and drug kingpins with a couple pounds of pot to put away for life.
But even when these Rikers’ Clara Bartons finally found that they could no longer remain silent, plying their healing trade even as their rooms were borrowed for the occasional beating of inmates, it wasn’t enough. They were willing to come forward, to tell of the brutality, to Bronx DA Rob Johnson’s prosecutors, to no avail.
But in a striking case study of just how rare it is for Rikers guards to be punished, the Bronx district attorney’s office, which has jurisdiction over the jail, said on Tuesday that it was declining to prosecute the officers involved because of inconsistencies and contradictions in testimony.
That likely is accurate, even in its absurdity. Sure, you have brutally beaten inmates. You have civilian medical staff chased out of clinics so the screws can use the rooms, the only rooms in the institution without video, to teach these scum who’s boss, and the inmates tend to make awful witnesses. Who’s to say what happened in the room?
The setup is darned near perfect. The prison guards have had years to get their stories straight. They know what they’re doing.
Even in severe assaults, with injuries ranging from concussions to broken bones, bringing criminal charges against officers can be difficult. Inmates are often considered unreliable witnesses and the federal report described a “powerful code of silence” among officers who often try to intimidate the jail’s staff into keeping quiet.
He slipped on a bar of soap. He attacked a guard with his face while strapped to a gurney. But before you blame the prosecutors, at least the prosecutors alone, consider where they fit in the grand scheme of prison beatings.
But successful criminal prosecutions are also rare. In its investigation, The Times examined 129 cases from last year in which inmates suffered severe injuries in altercations with correction officers. In none of those cases had officers been prosecuted.
Out of 20 cases against correction officers opened by the Bronx district attorney’s office in the last five years, only four resulted in prison sentences, three of them for less than two years.
For the Bronx DA to prosecute 20 cases, out of the hundreds that might, if someone spoke out, have presented themselves suggests that these 20 must have been pretty brutal. And yet only one guard caught a sentence in excess of two years. There are two messages here for Rob’s kids: this is a waste of resources, and even if you decide to allocate scarce resources on Rikers beatings, the chance of anything significant happening to the guard is slim. Very slim.
There’s always talk about judges sending messages with their sentences, as general deterrence is one of the primary purposes of putting people in prison. There is a similar message sent when, in essence, nobody is ever sentenced to any serious length of time. Nobody cares. Nobody is going to stop you. Nothing is going to happen to you anyway. Beat away.
Rikers Island isn’t a prison, but a jail. It’s not SuperMax, where they hold the “worst of the worst,” or the most dangerous, or even the necessarily guilty. It’s one of the jails used to warehouse New York City’s defendants, held on bail pending the conclusion of their criminal prosecutions. They are presumably innocent. It also holds prisoners sentenced to one year or less, who aren’t shipped to upstate prisons with cool names like Sing Sing and Attica, and given personal rock piles.
Everyone knows what happens to some inmates of Rikers; it may be the most violent and brutal island on this planet. It’s a caricature of itself.
According to Mr. Barnes’s report, there were five other guards present. Captains Marcel and Budnarine Behari were overseeing the beating, the witnesses said, and a few times, Captain Marcel yelled, “Stop resisting.”
This is the stuff of gallows humors.
A senior health official told investigators that an officer warned him to keep quiet, saying, “Sure is good there were witnesses to see that those guys hit their heads on the cabinets themselves.”
Tell me you haven’t heard that punch line before?
When cops on the street deliver a brutal beating or killing, there is at least the potential that someone will video it, that the cops will have to work hard to come up with excuses. On the Rock, in the clinic, there is no video. They can do anything they want, and even though everyone knows exactly what’s happening, they are essentially guaranteed that nothing will come of it. Nothing.