A New York Times investigation into the city’s notorious Rikers Island jail has uncovered disturbing details about inmate abuse.
The article primarily focuses on a Department of Health and Mental Hygiene report uncovered by the Times. According to the document, over the course of 11 months in 2013, 129 inmates were the victims of correctional officer abuse that resulted in injuries too serious to be treated by the medical staff at the jail.
In 80 percent of these cases inmates reported being beaten after they were handcuffed, and 77 percent of the time the inmate had previously been diagnosed with a mental illness.
The article highlights the case of Jose Bautista, who was admitted to Rickers after he couldn’t post a $250 bond on a misdemeanor charge. A few days later, he attempted suicide using his torn underwear. The guards prevented him from following through, but instead of contacting mental health personnel they handcuffed him and then beat him with such force he suffered a perforated bowel. Five of the 129 inmates in the Timesreport had attempted suicide right before their altercation with the guards.
Over half of the inmates in the report say they faced “interference or intimidation” from guards while being treated after an altercation. This creates a culture of silence, and hard evidence of the kind of abuses detailed in the Times rarely escapes the confines of the prison’s walls. Because of this, none of the 129 incidents have resulted in administrative punishment of a guard, let alone criminal prosecution.
The Times didn’t mention it, but there’s another way for people who have been harmed to get justice: sue. Civil rights lawsuits are increasingly common for victims who want to be made whole while at the same time punishing those who have hurt them. Many of these lawsuits are started while the plaintiff is in jail.
Lawsuits can help abused prisoners get the kind of justice they aren’t going to find in the criminal courts. They can also be the “sunlight” that shines on the broken system that the Times’ report provided rare insight into.
However, there are barriers for current and former inmates when it comes filing suit. For one, they are not always aware that many lawyers take these types of cases on contingency – meaning the lawyer doesn’t require any upfront cost for his services and instead only takes his fee if the case wins.
These inmates also tend to be more focused on their short term financial situation.The typical victim of prison abuse will correctly surmise a lawsuit will go on for years with no guarantee of victory. Because the recovery is so far off they decide not to seek justice, even though they have a valid claim.
Plaintiff financing has begun to change that mentality, as it’s becoming an increasingly popular tool for plaintiffs in civil rights cases. Financing can help plaintiffs pay for medical bills related to the incident and those who are still in prison can use plaintiff financing to support their family or even for money to use in their jail commissary account. Beyond that, plaintiff financing can help to reduce recidivism by helping prisoners who had been abused get back on their feet after they are released.
“What legal funding can do is give [former inmates] a head start while they seek employment,” explained Civil Rights attorney Conway Martindale, who represents Rikers Island inmates. “Then they are less likely to end up in the same predicaments that led to incarceration in the first place.”
The sad truth is many of these victims of jail brutality are taken advantage of by the system. Luckily there are ways for them to seek justice. The legal system takes away, but it gives back too.
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