When James Carlton cries even his tears hurt, he says.
Carlton, 40, was paralyzed from the neck down in May after a team of correction officers tackled him while he was in shackles inside the Vernon C. Bain Center jail barge in The Bronx, according to video surveillance viewed by the federal monitor who oversees the city Department of Correction.
“Everything hurts,” he told THE CITY from his bed at NYC Health + Hospitals / Bellevue in Manhattan. “I can’t sleep. It’s all nightmares.”
Carlton’s room in Bellevue’s brain injury rehabilitation unit is the latest bleak setting in a life scarred by trauma and trouble. Freed by a judge on June 20 after a compassionate release plea, he breathes through a tracheostomy and is fed via a tube inserted into his stomach.
“I can’t do anything anymore,” he said. “Look at me.”
Monitor Slams Molina
THE CITY first reported how Carlton was on a ventilator for two weeks after the May 11 encounter with correction officers. A correction department spokesperson said that he suffers from spinal stenosis, making him more susceptible to a serious spine injury.
Two days later, a federal monitor overseeing the department slammed Commissioner Louis Molina for withholding basic details in Carlton’s case, as well as in four other violent encounters involving different detainees.
In the hospital, fear remains constant for Carlton. He worries correction officers will attack him again, even though he is no longer in custody.
“DOC is here,” he told a nurse, noting he wants to change hospitals as soon as possible.
The correction department uses a different floor for incarcerated people with severe medical needs.
Last July, Carlton was jailed on robbery and assault charges after hitting someone described as “over 70 years old” in the face and stealing that person’s wallet in the Times Square-42nd Street subway station, according to the criminal complaint, which cited video surveillance of the alleged 1:40 a.m. assault on July 11.
The victim needed stitches, the complaint said.
In jail, Carlton struggled with reality, according to his defense attorney, Dean Vigliano, who asked the court to conduct a mental health evaluation, records show.
The results were not made public before his release last month.
A Troubled Past
Carlton had spent most of the past two decades in jail for offenses including robbery and assault, court records show.
“He’s never been home for more than a year,” his sister Nyasia Bankston said.
Carlton didn’t get along with his stepfather and blamed him for his biological father’s death despite having no connection to it, she added.
“He had a very troubled childhood,” his sister said.
Carlton also suffers from a spinal condition which can put pressure on the spinal cord and its nerves.
But records show he was never placed in a medical unit while jailed and officers had no idea he was particularly vulnerable to any physical interactions.
Carlton had been moved to the jail barge after complaining about being targeted by gang members on Rikers Island, according to a jail source familiar with his case.
So officers moved him to an open-housing unit, correction records show.
Multiple jail insiders said Carlton should have been transferred to a Rikers facility where people with mental health issues are housed — or to a specialized medical housing area.
Shrouded in Secrecy
From the start, the correction department tried to keep the May clash under wraps, along with four others around the same time, according to Steve Martin, the federal monitor overseeing the department.
Martin, the Austin, Tex.-based monitor, said he learned about what happened to Carlton and the other incidents via “allegations made by credible external sources or media reports.”
Before his first special report right before Memorial Day weekend, Commissioner Molina urged Martin not to file it, according to the federal monitor.
Molina told Martin the report would “cause great harm to the department when we are making great strides,” according to court papers, which said the jails chief argued that news of the violent encounter would “fuel the flames of those who believe we cannot govern ourselves.”
The Department of Correction has also abruptly stopped notifying the media when someone in custody dies, THE CITY reported.
Under the Adams administration, the department has also blocked real-time video surveillance access from Rikers and other city lockups to members of the Board of Correction, which oversees the agency.
As for Carlton, the confrontation began in an elevator when Carlton initially refused to leave and then raced out past several officers, according to jail records.
He was tackled by an emergency response probe team — referred to as “turtles” by detainees due to their heavy body shields — put on a gurney and brought to a search area inside the five-story floating jail barge in the East River, surveillance video shows.
After a body scan search, hand-held video showed that Carlton stood up as officers tried to help him put on his shoes — a task difficult to do alone while his hands were cuffed behind his back and legs were shackled, the Martin report said.
Carlton’s leg “jerked towards what appeared to be the helmet of one of the staff members assisting him with his shoes,” the report said. “Multiple staff then took the individual to the floor.”
Molina has described what happened as an “assault on staff.”
Martin and the federal judge overseeing the case have questioned that conclusion.
Even if Molina’s characterization of what happened “is accepted, a question remains” if the officers needed to tackle him since Carlton’s hands were restrained and he was unable to break his fall, Martin said.
When the officers picked up Carlton, his head struck a bench, a plastic container, a partition and the floor, Martin noted.
Molina has 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.
But none of the officers in Carlton’s case have been charged internally or criminally.
Similarly, the city’s Correctional Health Services (CHS), which oversees medical care of incarcerated people, has not disciplined any staffers involved with Carlton’s care.
“No CHS staff have been disciplined related to these incidents because CHS acted appropriately,” said CHS spokesperson Nicole Levy.
During an online emergency status conference last month, Laura Taylor Swain, chief judge for the Southern District of New York, questioned Molina’s assertion that the officers did nothing wrong.
“How do you reconcile the statement that there’s no wrongdoing with the fact that apparently internal charges have been brought?” Swain asked, noting Carlton was “banged” on the ground.
Molina said his comments to reporters specifically addressed the initial takedown to stop Carlton’s attempted escape in the elevator.
“Inadvertently, it appears that the person in custody’s head may have hit a bench, may have hit a floor,” he added, referring to the second takedown. “But preliminarily, the actions of those officers … I don’t find concerning as of yet, but the investigation is ongoing.”
Swain appeared dismayed by Molina’s response.
“So you don’t find it concerning that a person was taken to the floor, cuffed behind in shackles, to a concrete floor, and being taken down face first?” she asked Molina.
The correction department’s media team ignored multiple requests to schedule a formal visit with Carlton while he was in custody.
Carlton was initially treated at Lincoln Hospital in The Bronx, and jail officials said all visits must be approved by the facility warden.
But spokesperson Latima Johnson never disclosed which warden had jurisdiction over that area. She also repeatedly ignored requests to set up an official visit.
After multiple requests, Johnson finally scheduled a visit that was canceled the night before Carlton was moved to Bellevue.
The department’s media team partly blamed the scheduling delay on Carlton’s defense lawyer, charging he took too long to sign off on the meeting.
Now, nearly two months after he was paralyzed, Carlton is struggling to come to terms with his new life.
“I can’t move,” he said. “I’ll never get out of this bed.”
As a youth, he studied martial arts and loved to play basketball and handball.
“I was very athletic,” he recalled.
Now, even tears cause him pain, forcing him to ask a nurse to assist with a tissue.
“It burns,” he said as he slowly nodded off.