For thirty-four years, a lawyer in New York City named Jonathan Chasan has been trying to stop officers from beating up inmates on Rikers Island. He started working at the Legal Aid Society when he was thirty-one years old, in a unit known as the Prisoners’ Rights Project. The job could be very depressing: fielding calls from inmates who reported being attacked by officers; collecting medical records describing broken bones and perforated ear drums; studying photos of prisoners’ bruised and battered bodies; filing lawsuits that dragged on and on. For years, nobody paid much attention to what he was trying to do; Rikers was off the radar of most politicians and reporters. But this year that has started to change—due, in part, to aggressive reporting by the Times—and finally, this week, Chasan acquired the ultimate ally: the Department of Justice.
On Thursday, Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced that the Justice Department is planning to sue New York City over the treatment of adolescent inmates on Rikers. It will also be asking the court to consolidate its lawsuit with a class-action suit filed by Chasan and several other attorneys in 2011. That lawsuit—known as Nunez v. City of New York—seeks to put an end to the “unnecessary and excessive force inflicted upon inmates” by staff in all of New York City’s jails.
The ninety-six-page complaint in the Nunez case (which was put together by Chasan and eight other lawyers) teems with horror stories. There is Shameik Smallwood, who had to have facial surgery and a metal plate inserted because, the complaint alleges, officers “punched, kicked, stomped and maced Mr. Smallwood’s face, ribs, and back while Mr. Smallwood lay handcuffed on his stomach.” There is Rodney Brye, who had a “ ‘handball’ sized hematoma that was bleeding on his head” after he was allegedly struck by officers and lost consciousness. There is Christopher Graham, who had his jaw fractured and endured reconstructive surgery after, the complaint alleges, an officer “brutally and viciously punched Mr. Graham multiple times on the right side of the face.”
New York City has paid a very steep price for these abuses in recent years. The Nunez complaint includes a long list of settlements won by injured inmates. A prisoner who lost part of his hearing and eyesight after he was beaten by correction officers was awarded five hundred and fifty thousand dollars; another, who suffered a spinal fracture, collapsed lung, and fractured ribs, was awarded three hundred thousand dollars; another, who endured an orbital fracture, was awarded three hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars. How did the correction officers at Rikers become so abusive? “Under Mayor Bloomberg, a lot of staff members in the Department of Correction who had problematic use-of-force histories—some of whom had been disciplined—were promoted,” Chasan says. “This had not occurred under his predecessor, Giuliani’s commissioner, Bernard Kerik.”
One of the most surprising revelations to emerge from Chasan’s work is that Kerik—who oversaw the city’s Department of Correction from 1998 to 2000 and later became an inmate himself, serving three years in federal prison for tax fraud, lying under oath to White House officials, and other felonies—was, at least in Chasan’s view, far more effective at weeding out abusive staff members than his successors have been. This contention is at the center of Nunez v. City of New York, which was brought by the Legal Aid Society as well as two law firms, Ropes & Gray and Emery Celli Brinkerhoff & Abady.
As Chasan and his fellow lawyers put it in their complaint, “The same persons who were named as defendants in previous complaints or cited administratively for excessive force violations when they were correction officers or captains are named again in this Complaint as deputy wardens, wardens, and in some cases stand near the top of the Department’s administrative hierarchy.”
Looking back at his three decades of work on behalf of the city’s prisoners, Chasan considers his most significant achievement to be a class-action lawsuit that focussed on the main solitary-confinement unit on Rikers, known as the Central Punitive Segregation Unit (CPSU). That lawsuit, Sheppard v. Phoenix, was filed in 1993 and revealed that officers had seriously injured at least three hundred prisoners held in the CPSU during the prior five years. “The CPSU occupies the third ring of hell in the field of corrections in the United States,” a jail expert who visited the unit wrote in a report. “Staff’s behavior in this highly secure unit is . . . psychopathic behavior.” The Sheppard lawsuit dragged on for five years, but the final outcome was that the Department of Correction was forced to make numerous changes in the CPSU, including adding three hundred video cameras in the unit. The number of broken bones and perforated eardrums began to drop.
The legal agreement that grew out of Sheppard v. Phoenix expired in 2002, and eventually, Chasan says, the situation got worse all over again. Did he ever think about giving up? Maybe moving into a less depressing line of work? “No, no, no, no!” he says. “I grew up in this city. I wanted to vindicate the rights of the poor, the non-white, the people who are going through hell in the New York City jails. It’s worse now than it’s ever been.” The fact that the Justice Department is seeking to consolidate its lawsuit with his latest case would seem to increase the odds that Nunez v. City of New York might result in lasting reform. Nothing is certain, however, and just yesterday—amidst phone calls from journalists trying to learn more about his lawsuit—Chasan received a call reporting that several inmates had arrived at Bellevue Hospital with injuries that appeared to have been inflicted by correction officers.