Like A Rock

The speeches flowed.  The reports damned. Ah, yes, it would all change.  Rikers Island would no longer be the cesspool of violence it had been since, forever. Important people said so. That was August, 2014.

On Sept. 2, four correction officers pulled Jose Guadalupe, an inmate classified in medical records as seriously mentally ill, into his solitary-confinement cell at Rikers Island and beat him unconscious.

Details?  Sure.


How could this be?  Didn’t United States Attorney Preet Bharara issue his scathing report about violence at Rikers in August?  Didn’t Mayor de Blasio give speeches about how he was going to end the violence on the Rock?  Didn’t the New York Times editorial demand change?  Everyone knew how awful it was, and they promised, they promised, it would end.

The New York Times has an article detailing beating after beating, as life at Rikers Island goes on as if nothing has changed.

But The Times’s examination makes clear that the violence has continued largely unabated, despite extraordinary levels of outside scrutiny, a substantial commitment of resources by Mr. de Blasio and a new team of high-ranking managers installed by the correction commissioner, Joseph Ponte, who took over the job in April.

According to Correction Department data, guards used physical force against inmates 4,074 times in 2014, the highest total in more than a decade. The increase came even as the jail’s average daily population continued to decline, falling to 10,000 this year from 14,000 a decade ago.

Seventy percent of the 62 beatings examined by The Times resulted in head injuries, even though department policies direct guards to avoid blows to the head unless absolutely necessary. And more than half the inmates sustained broken bones.

The guys at the top give heartwarming speeches about reform. The guys at the bottom continue to stomp the heads of inmates who annoy them.

Mr. Guadalupe’s altercation with correction officers started innocuously, with a disagreement over personal photos he had hung on the wall of his cell.

During a search in September, the guards tore down photos of his family, along with pictures of women he had cut out of magazines, he said in a telephone interview from Fishkill Correctional Facility. When he asked to see a supervisor, Mr. Guadalupe said, the officers pulled him into his cell, where there were no surveillance cameras, kicked and repeatedly punched him in the face and slammed his head against the wall.

The naïve might wring their hands over such pointless and needless brutality, but the guards will tell you that either they run the joint or the prisoners run the joint, and they have no plans for the latter.  They will tell you that these are criminals, and all they understand is force, brute force.  And it’s a very hard job.

Rikers is made up of 10 jails, many in dire need of physical repairs. Compulsory overtime for the officers who staff them is now routine. They complain that repeated 16-hour shifts leave them exhausted, on edge and with little patience for disruptive inmates.

Given how the City hired corrections officers, these are not the sort of guys one wants on edge.

But in trying to turn around Rikers, the de Blasio administration is contending with an agency that for years, according to the city’s Investigation Department, recruited officers who belonged to gangs, had criminal records or both. Training has long been criticized as inadequate and, once on the job, guards have learned to look the other way and cover up for fellow officers, investigators say.

And even if they do get “caught,” say because they killed someone and were forced to explain why another dead body was lying in a cell?

With a disciplinary system that is so feeble, there are officers who have been allowed to abuse inmates again and again, another issue highlighted in the United States attorney’s report.

One guard, Bob Villette, who joined the department in 2006, has been involved in at least 88 uses of force, according to department records. He has also been named in seven lawsuits, costing the city $450,000 in settlements for, among other things, cracking the teeth of one inmate and rupturing the eardrum of another.

Mr. Villette, who declined to comment when reached by phone, is a member of the elite emergency services unit, which specializes in subduing disruptive inmates. Including overtime, he has made over $100,000 annually in recent years, city personnel records show.

A cool “elite” assignment and a big money. Not so bad for at least 88 beatings and seven lawsuits  Another three lawsuits and Villette will make the list for Corrections Commissioner.

For those who, mistakenly but understandably, assume that these are all hardened criminals in need of “firm measures” to keep in line, Rikers Island is a jail, not a prison. It’s where people awaiting trial, presumed innocent, are held because their families couldn’t make $1000 bail. Yes, there are some sentenced prisoners there, but only those sentenced to a year or less, as the rest go to prisons.

And there are people held in custody pending trial who are tough dudes, but given the extraordinary drop in violent crime, not too many. There just aren’t that many violent crimes occurring and being prosecuted.

In December, he got into a struggle with Leon Barnes, an inmate whose arm was in a sling at the time. According to a department report, Mr. Villette wrestled the inmate to the floor, where five other officers “applied control holds” and handcuffed him.

During the encounter Mr. Barnes suffered a contusion to the scalp, a swollen jaw and a broken nose, the report said.

The six officers reported no injuries.

That will teach him. That will teach all of us.  Giving speeches, writing reports and editorials, and yes, writing blog posts, won’t change the violence on the Rock.  Judge, when you set bail for some street kid for no particular reason, knowing there was no way he could make $500, no less $1000, did you mean to sentence him to broken bones, concussions and beatings?  That’s what you did. Did you realize it?

The guards on Rikers won’t change. And they will outlive the de Blasio administration, the Bharara report and any other bureaucratic nonsense you throw their way. They are on the ground, cracking skulls. Talk all you want. They will still be there when it’s all over. Unless you rid the system of all of them and start clean. Rikers is full of animals, and most of them wear uniforms.

9 thoughts on “Like A Rock

  1. Curtis

    And you just know that the good jail guards throttled the bad jail guards in the locker room and ostracized them for their bad behavior!

    Amusing, that when you see a thugscrum of violence being perpetrated upon a suspect by law enforcers, there is never a good cop around to intercede. Okay, Okay… I admit, it is rare.

    All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.

    All within the police, nothing outside the police, nothing against the police.

    But I repeat myself.

    1. SHG Post author

      Does this comment add anything, or just provide you with an opportunity to vent the same old crap? No more like this.

  2. j a higginbotham

    The same two authors wrote a scathing article on CCBA president Norman Seabrook in December (here there is a secondary link to an op-ed by him) as a keystone in blocking reform efforts (it is only referenced in Related Coverage).
    If the article is factual and if Riker’s Island is worse than most US jails, he is a major part of the problem. [Even if just a product of society rather than great man; hey, if Pat Lynch always gets a shout out…]

    1. SHG Post author

      Seabrook has gotten his here as well. The December article, on the other hand, reflects a somewhat misguided grasp of how shit flows. I can’t blame Seabrook for being what he is.

      I can, however, blame the last 20 mayors of New York City, United States Attorneys, Governors and a few thousand judges, for failing to do their jobs when it comes to Rikers.

  3. Ken Mackenzie

    “Unless you rid the system of all of them and start clean.”

    Sometimes you have to do just that. We had a prison called Sir David Longlands aka the killing fields. The government decided the only way to clean it up was to close it, refurbish and re-open. Of course the real change was the new staff.

  4. John Barleycorn

    This is truly an apex within forgotten “normal” normality.

    Texas had a little “love in” a few days ago.

    Not sure if you or this post is aware of that.

    I give you credit for back side attention though.

    A tour of county “jails” throughout the nation is not on the agenda or horizon.

    The super majority of those county “jails” are very “real”.

    Something your guild should never lose sight of. Credit the post. Frankly easy to do when initial and lasting temporary done is done though.

    Your hail-marry conclusion may need a few lunches by jurisdiction and robe. The temperament being infused with hopeful melancholy to the extreme with hard candy that breaks the molars of the finest dental care relevance can find amongst the actors.

    Justice is prosecuted as vengeance and the defense yields for a plea.

    Incarceration is oddly more removed from the process than most comprehend. Including some all stars from your guild.

    It is very real.

    No chill in sight and truth is we still need jails.

    Keep on sweeping.

    Float a copy of the “compliance” regiments deployed with metaphorical seconds and thirds after the second cocktail.

    Any Lions & Tigers & Bears robed shills should be met with awkward silence.

    Vengeance is for cowards!

  5. Bartleby the Scrivener

    Hm. I think there’s some items that are at least potentially slanted here.

    Bob Villette has had at least 88 recorded uses of force and was named in seven lawsuits, and those lawsuits cost $450,000. How does that compare to other people person with a similar job function in a facility with a similar population over the same period?

    Regarding the lawsuits; is the jail self insured or do they go through a commercial carrier? If they go through a commercial carrier, when I was still a licensed agent, it wasn’t up to the insured as to whether or not a settlement was reached, but the carrier, and it could well be that the carrier decided to do so against the wishes of the city and settle. Either way though, how many of those were settled because it would cost more to fight them than it would to settle? Going to court for such a suit costs money and the settlement value comes to an average of about $65K per lawsuit. Alas, I am not an attorney, so I don’t know the cost to defend such a suit, but I have to assume it isn’t cheap ($10K per? More?). Assuming $10K to defend each suit, it’s an additional $55K to eliminate the risk of additional liability. I could definitely see a path to being willing to settle to avoid having to pay for attorneys and expert witnesses to defend myself against what I saw as a baseless suit.

    Lastly, injuries to inmates were noted for two of those lawsuits, but no details were given as to the circumstances under which those injuries took place. If a person grabs me by the ear and is trying to tear it off, if I respond quickly enough and with sufficient force, I could injure them rather severely without being injured myself, and that would not indicate wrongdoing on my part, but this article would surely do so.

    While I tend to be very suspicious of the statistics at Rikers and have serious issues with the number of uses of force in question, I don’t know that the cited article can be assumed to be presenting the information in an unbiased fashion.

    1. SHG Post author

      Not to argue that there isn’t bias lurking in the article (when isn’t there?), but to answer your questions:

      1. Bob Villette is a statistical outlier. That said, it doesn’t mean that the numbers accurately prove the point. If he’s a point guy for problems, there’s a good chance he’s going to have higher numbers than others. But then, given the lack of transparency at the Rock, we have to work with what they give us.

      2. The City is self-insured. It defends through corp counsel, which has a large cadre of lawyers on payroll dedicated to defending the city. It has no need to, and does not, settle to avoid litigation.

    2. Reed

      Given the near complete barriers to accountability in law enforcement, any analysis “normalizing” settlement costs of any individual law enforcement officer seems…well…superfluous… that the right word? When have you ever heard of any law enforcement or municipal entity entering into a settlement when there was no unlawful conduct committed by one of its public officers (or quasi-public officer)? And to even couch the analysis in terms of a “cost of doing business” context seems to forget the very serious premise behind our nation’s structure of government and the ethical “permissions” that are granted by US–the citizenry, to those we allow to violate our rights (by curtailing our liberties, taking our property, and, yes, even killing us) and our laws every day in the name of law enforcement. We expect our public officials–especially our law enforcement personnel, to constantly exercise the special permissions we grant them with an extraordinary expression of control, discipline, and integrity. That’s the quid pro quo–its NOT to constantly exercise a keen financial acumen. That is NOT the extent of their responsibilities towards the citizenry.

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