Federal Monitor Blasts Department of Correction Commissioner Over Incidents in Jails
The monitor decries explanations that just don’t add up about one detainee severely injured and another one dead.
On the eve of a pivotal federal court hearing on the future of the city Department of Correction, a federal monitor blasted the beleaguered jail system Monday for security lapses and bungled reporting on a pair of incidents in which one detainee was paralyzed and another jumped to his death.
The scathing report from Monitor Steve Martin — the third in three weeks — questioned how Correction Commissioner Louis Molina could determine there was no wrongdoing as a team of correction officers tackled a shackled detainee on May 11 inside the Vernon C. Bain Center, a jail barge in The Bronx.
James Carlton, 40, is now paralyzed from the neck down after striking his head on a bench, a plastic container, a partition and the floor during the May 11 takedown, according to jail records cited by Martin.
“The fact the individual hit his head was not originally reported to the Tour Commander,” Martin’s report notes, citing that Carlton has since undergone three surgeries.
Jail officials have disciplined at least five staffers for failing to properly escort Carlton or secure a gate inside the jail barge, and for failing to report his injuries and transfer via ambulance to a hospital, Martin’s latest court filing revealed.
Molina has said Carlton was trying to escape, and then assaulted an officer. Molina also told amNewYork on Friday that Carlton had a pre-existing medical condition, spinal stenosis, which officers were unaware of because medical records are private.
Martin questioned that account, noting the disciplinary measures taken against staffers involved in the incident.
“Given even these initial findings and disciplinary actions by the Department, it is unclear how the commissioner could reportedly adamantly deny wrongdoing in this case or how the department could claim that the force was necessary and therefore assert that there was no inappropriate conduct,” Martin’s 32-page report said.
Martin questioned why, given DOC’s version of events, the officers needed to tackle Carlton, “particularly since the individual’s hands were restrained, which limited not only his ability to assault someone but also to break his fall.”
The federal monitor and his team, in place since 2015, issued three highly critical reports within the past three weeks. The first special report slammed jail officials for suppressing information about the Carlton incident and four others.
Martin also called into question Molina’s ability to reform the troubled department.
The monitor said the five “serious and disturbing incidents involving harm to incarcerated persons” over the past two weeks “raise profound uncertainties and significant questions about whether the commissioner and agency officials are capable of managing such serious incidents.”
Martin also cited the death of Rubu Zhao, 52, after he jumped from the upper tier of a specialized unit on Rikers for people with mental illness on May 14.
“A medical emergency was called after the individual fell to the floor, but staff and leadership did not report the incident to the Central Operations Desk, until 33 hours after the incident,” the report said.
Zhao was taken off life support two days after his leap.
Jail officials told Martin that there were two staff members on the floor, but video shows that one officer was in a cell converted into an office, the report released Monday said.
“The other officer was seated at a table with three individuals in custody playing dominoes,” Martin said. “While building rapport in this way is laudable, there is at least a question about whether there was, in fact, adequate overall supervision on the unit.”
In response to the first report, The Legal Aid Society and other lawyers representing plaintiffs in the case Nunez v. City of New York asked Laura Taylor Swain, the chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, to schedule a special hearing.
Swain set the hearing for Tuesday.
Advocates for people behind bars hope that The Legal Aid Society can convince Swain to appoint a receiver — an independent manager — to take over the Correction Department.
On Thursday, Martin filed another report with the court that called out Molina and his staff’s ability to properly work with his monitoring team.
“The commitment to effective collaboration, as evidenced by the department’s recent performance, has deteriorated,” Martin wrote. “The department’s approach to reform has recently become characterized by inaccuracies and a lack of transparency.”
According to the Martin report filed right before Memorial Day weekend, Molina initially told the monitoring team that he’s not legally required to report in-custody deaths to them.
The Correction Department has also stopped notifying reporters when deaths occur behind bars, THE CITY reported last week. The move angered jail watchdogs and led city Comptroller Brad Lander to stop tracking jail deaths in the online dashboard for DOC.
Over the past two years, the department’s media team would issue a press release announcing the death of anyone behind bars. The release typically included basic information like the person’s name, housing facility, date and time of death.
In response to the story, new Correction Department spokesperson Frank Dwyer told reporters he would notify them if they sign up for such alerts.
He did not respond to a question about just using the department’s full press contact roster for such notifications.