Why New York Prison Guards Can Get Away With Almost Anything

Prison guards walk down a corridor in the Adjustment Center at at a US prison. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Prison guards walk down a corridor in the Adjustment Center at at a US prison. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

New York prisons are increasingly notorious for their corruption, brutality, and incompetence. Last year, two convicted murderers escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York. In 2014, a homeless veteran “baked to death” after being left in an overheated cell at Rikers Island.

The state’s correctional department has been marred not only by incompetence, but sadistic “beat up squads” of officers who brutalize inmates and others who commit sexual assault and rape. According to a new report by the New York Times and the non-profit Marshall Project, the internal investigation unit of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has expressed its commitment to curtailing these ongoing abuses — but it faces one major obstacle: the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, which has dominated New York politicians and policy for years.

Though the national conversation on mass incarceration and mistreatment in prisons has rightly focused on corrupt ties between lawmakers and the private prison lobby, the prison guard union in New York wields an impressive amount of power. The Times reported:

The union is a formidable political force, protected in the Legislature, primarily by upstate lawmakers in districts where prisons are the biggest employers. The chairman of the corrections committee in the State Senate, Patrick M. Gallivan, a Republican who represents an area outside Buffalo and Rochester, has five prisons in his district alone.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is also complicit in the increasingly apparent racket. Though he has overseen the Department of Corrections’ new attempt to rein in the union, his staff is closely connected to it.

“His chief of staff, Melissa DeRosa, worked in public relations for the union for several months in 2009 and is the daughter of Giorgio DeRosa, a major Albany lobbyist whose firm received $691,000 from the union between 2010 and 2015, according to state filings,” the Times noted.

The Cuomo administration also has played down the “culpability” of violent officers.

Relationships like these have allowed the union to amass substantial control of what goes on inside correctional facilities. Thanks to the union’s ongoing contract negotiations with a “long line of governors,” including Cuomo, the union retains power over personnel decisions, overriding prison superintendents and even the commissioner of the corrections department.

“Under the current contract, union seniority rules dictate that superintendents have practically no power to transfer problem officers,” the Times reported. An arbitrator — not the commissioner — decides who gets fired. Officers enjoy a 24-hour grace period before being questioned about reported incidents, and they are also not required to answer questions from outside law enforcement agencies. Further, because of privacy protections enacted thanks to lobbying from police and corrections officers unions, disciplinary actions taken against guards are kept secret.

“The result is that a culture of brutality has been allowed to thrive in the prisons, where a few rogue guards, often known on the cellblocks as beat-up squads, administer vigilante justice, while fellow officers look the other way,” the Times observed.

The investigative unit currently has a caseload of “suspected wrongdoing by officers” totaling over 1,000 incidents. The Times noted several:

  • Officer Peter A. Mastrantonio, an officer at Southport Correctional Facility, has been sued 17 times over allegations of brutality; the lawsuits have cost the state $673,000 in settlements, alone
  • A partially deaf and blind 81-year-old-man, James Willsey, was knocked unconscious while in handcuffs at Sullivan Correctional Facility
  • Frank Povoski, an inmate at Great Meadow, was beaten after the Times quoted in him a storyabout an inmate who died at the hands of officers.

Asked whether brutality was a problem, however, union president Michael B. Powers flatly said, “What are you talking about?”

Due to years of ongoing abuses like these, Cuomo authorized the Department of Corrections’ internal investigations to add 34 new investigators, which expanded the team from 116 members to 150. The governor’s approval represents, arguably, a response to his own policies favoring the prison union, which have allowed misconduct to run rampant.

Nevertheless, Stephen Maher, a former assistant state attorney general, was hired to fix the unit in order to deal with the state prison system’s myriad shortcomings.

The new leadership appears to be taking its duties seriously. Daniel F. Martuscello III, the department’s deputy commissioner, has said, “We will do anything necessary. I’m not here to make the union happy.”

Maher fired 10 percent of investigators deemed unqualified and the unit has attempted to seize power from the union — but not without pushback. In one instance, the Department of Corrections moved to fire an officer at Sing Sing prison, Lavar Thomas, who admitted he “repeatedly punched an inmate” for making “a gurgling, hocking sound as if he was going to spit.”

Though incident was caught on video, the state arbitrator decided in favor of Thomas, who had a history of “erratic” behavior. In retaliation, corrections investigators stripped certification from another officer who testified on behalf of Thomas and referred the case to the Westchester County District Attorney’s office, which filed criminal charges against the officer. However, the Times noted, “under the [union labor] contract, an arbitrator’s decision is ‘final and binding’ and a misdemeanor conviction is not grounds for automatic termination,” which highlights the power of union’s purchased influence on policy.

Unsurprisingly, investigators hoping to combat the unions imbalanced control have run into other problems beyond rigid labor contracts.

“Guards can be slow to produce inmate witnesses from the cellblocks and will routinely confer, in efforts to get their stories straight, current and former department officials said,” and investigators have been blocked from entering prisons. “I once knew of an investigator who got his jaw broken by a C.O. from Clinton,” said Patrick Dunleavy, a former deputy commissioner of the unit.

But the union’s resistance is not limited to thwarting the investigations unit, nor is it a recent development. A 26-year veteran of the corrections department, Barbara Kowaleski, spoke out in 2002 after witnessing another guard, Michael Rorick, abuse an inmate at Hale Creek Correctional Facility. She claimed she was repeatedly harassed and eventually fired, and a lawsuit ultimately recognized her status as a whistleblower. She was awarded $200,000.

While Kowaleski’s case was eventually resolved (as best the system could manage), one threat she received highlights the power dynamic the investigations seek to interrupt. In her lawsuit, Kowaleski alleged two union officials, Rorick and Donald Rowe led a campaign against her.

“At one point,” the Times reported, “when she was driving home from work, Mr. Rowe, who was then the union shop steward, drove up and forced her pickup truck off the road.

“Mr. Rowe was later elected president of the statewide union.”

The Times reports that according to state records, both men still work at the prison. The union’s current president, Michael B. Powers, has dismissed recent criticisms of guard misconduct and brutality:

“We’re the best at what we do…best in the nation.”

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