New York Times – by MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ and MICHAEL WINERIP
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. The New York City Department of Investigation referred the case for prosecution twice, and The New York Times reported details of the assaults in an investigation into brutality by guards last month.
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.
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.
The decision came just a day after the federal report placed much of the blame for the culture of brutality at Rikers Island on a failure to punish guards who use excessive and unnecessary force. Correction officers, according to the report, brutalize inmates routinely “with the expectation that they will face little or no consequences for their unlawful conduct.”
The report singled out the investigative division of the Correction Department for particular rebuke, saying the system for investigating attacks by guards was short-staffed and undermined by archaic paper-based record-keeping and an institutional bias against inmates.
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.
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.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the clinic assault, witnesses later said in interviews with The Times, was how brazen it was.
The first inmate to be beaten was Tamel Dixon. On the night of Dec. 17, 2012, around 8 p.m., Mr. Dixon, 18, was removed from his solitary confinement cell, handcuffed to a gurney and taken to the jail clinic.
Officer Lameen Barnes prepared the official report on the episode, writing that Mr. Dixon had tried to throw an “unknown liquid substance” at the officers, and in response, they had searched his cell for contraband. When the officers entered, the report said, Mr. Dixon insulted them with profanity, refused to follow orders from Capt. Rod Marcel, “took a fighting stance” and “pulled and twisted” until officers were able to restrain him and handcuff him to the gurney. No contraband was found.
Mr. Dixon was “escorted to the main clinic for medical examination without any further incident of force used,” Mr. Barnes wrote.
Two clinician witnesses interviewed by The Times, whose stories matched an email written by a third, told a radically different story. They said that as Mr. Dixon was wheeled into an examination room out of range of video cameras, he kept screaming, “Don’t leave me, they’re going to kill me.” About a half-dozen officers were in the room, and one in particular kept pounding him, repeatedly, “as if in a trance,” one clinician said.
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.” After they finished with Mr. Dixon, a second inmate, Andre Lane, was wheeled in, and was so badly beaten, the clinicians said, that the next morning, the exam rooms were still blood-splattered.
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.”
Both captains had long histories of using force with inmates. Captain Marcel alone had almost 100 serious incidents dating back to 1999, according to Correction Department records obtained by The Times.
Captain Behari, who has also used force on inmates on dozens of occasions in the last five years, was involved in another beating in April 2012, in which an inmate’s nose was broken and one of his vertebrae was fractured. Administrative charges were brought against him and five correction officers in that case, but the department’s internal disciplinary system is plagued by delays, a serious failing highlighted in the federal report. Indeed, 28 months later, there is still no decision in the case.
Witnesses to the clinic case reacted angrily on Tuesday when told that the district attorney was not going to prosecute.
“I’m furious,” said a social worker who was interviewed about the case by prosecutors from the district attorney’s office and the Department of Investigation. “I was a witness to the whole thing, I saw it happen,” she said, insisting on anonymity in fear of retribution from correction officers.
She said it was common practice — “normalized brutality” — for beatings to go on at the clinic, because there were no cameras there. Three health officials said in interviews that guards would come in with an inmate and order the medical personnel to the back of the clinic so they could not witness what was going on.
The clinician said she was interviewed by the district attorney’s office last summer, but then did not hear from anyone for a year. Only recently, following publication of the investigation by The Times, was she interviewed again.
Mark G. Peters, the Department of Investigation commissioner, said his office had referred the case for prosecution in July 2013 and again in June this year. He said he had referred the case on Tuesday to the Correction Department for disciplinary action against the officers.
A spokeswoman for the Bronx district attorney’s office said prosecution had been declined “because of inconsistent versions of events, contradictions between the witness statements and the forensics (injuries of the inmates), and the inability of witnesses to observe the events.”
Asked in an interview last month why it had taken 20 months to decide whether to prosecute the case, Robert T. Johnson, the Bronx district attorney, said that the lawyer originally assigned to the case had become bogged down in other cases and then left the office for private practice. He said he did not assign a second prosecutor sooner because “everybody’s got their own caseload.”
By the time a new prosecutor was assigned, he said, key witnesses were hard to find.
“Some of these cases, from Rikers Island in particular, some of the witnesses get scattered.”