Allegations of Abuse at Westchester Jail

By Jonathan Dienst
|  Monday, Nov 30, 2009  |  Updated 3:30 PM EDT
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Allegations of Abuse at Westchester Jail

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Prosecutors are calling on the county to improve training and rules for officers when it comes to the use of force, along with better oversight provisions.

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This jail is a real hell.

Officers at the Westchester County Jail are accused of using excessive force repeatedly on inmates including juveniles and then writing false reports to allegedly cover-up any wrongdoing.  The abuse allegations are contained in a 42-page report released Monday by the U.S. Justice Department.

"Especially disturbing are the findings of repeated use of excessive force and the deprivation of basic medical care," said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.   "Our jails have a legal duty to protect the physical safety of their inmates and to provide humane conditions of confinement."

Prosecutors said they reviewed hundreds of the prison's "use of force incidents" from 2006-2007 including action by the jail's Emergency Response Teams. The reports said officers needlessly shoved inmates into objects, used injurious holds during escorts, used pepper spray on prisoners at point-blank range for little reason and regularly disregarded some inmates mental impairments when deciding to take action.

Juveniles were also among those mistreated at the jail, officials said. Some were not properly separated from the adult population, and in one instance, a 16-year old was placed in isolation for 360 days because he had taken a swing at an officer. The jail is also accused of not having proper mental health resources for juveniles in custody there. 

Correction Commissioner Joseph K. Spano stated many of the past problems have been corrected.

“We disagree with the ultimate conclusions of the DOJ and maintain that the Department’s policies and practices are consistent with constitutional standards," said Spano. "The vast majority of the identified deficiencies will be shown to have been addressed and remedied.”

The report details numerous past incidents of alleged abuse of adult inmates.

In a January 11, 2007 incident, guards allegedly slammed a female inmates head into a wall after she refused to be locked-in her cell. The report alleges she was then pepper sprayed her in the face after she was handcuffed and lying on the floor. Investigators said the guards use of force was 'excessive' and the report they wrote about the incident was inaccurate.

In another January 11 incident, officials said guards used painful escort techniques on a compliant inmate and even threw him into a wall, causing a gash over his eye.  Prosecutors said the incident should have been investigated by the jail but never was.

Prosecutors said the County Jail did not have an appropriate system in place to review allegation of abuse. The report said procedures for review were not followed and that supervisors involved in the use-of-force incidents reviewed their own incidents.

Despite allegations of abuse, the Justice Department said the jail reported there were no grievance complaints by inmates in 2006 and 2007.

While medical care can be excellent because of the jail's affiliation with Westchester County Medical Center, at other times, inmates in need do not get appropriate care. Infections, lack of dental care and use of riot gear laden officer to help force medication on inmates who refuse among the additional allegations filed in the report.   

Prosecutors are calling on the county to improve training and rules for officers when it comes to the use of force along with better oversight provisions. They are also calling for better medical screening of all inmates.

The Justice Department said it will work with the County to improve conditions there.  If those measures fail, the report warns the Civil Rights Division could file suit within the next month or so.

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