Westchester County Jail Violates Inmates’ Rights

December 2, 2009

In a letter sent to Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano dated November 19, 2009, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York accused the Westchester County Jail of violating inmates’ constitutional rights. Specifically, the investigation found that the jail has exhibited a pattern of  “failing to: (1) adequately protect inmates from harm and serious risk of harm from staff; and (2) provide inmates with adequate medical and mental health care.”

The letter describes videotapes depicting Emergency Response Team officers “shoving inmates aggressively into fixed objects when less injurious tactical holds could be safely employed, routinely applying needlessly painful escort techniques (bent wrist locks while apparently applying intense pressure), routinely employing crowd control contaminants”, and using “threatening and aggressive verbal strategies, which tend to escalate rather than de-escalate a potentially volatile situation.”

In one incident captured on videotape, an uncooperative female prisoner had her head driven into a wall, while other officers took her to the ground to apply handcuffs and leg restraints. She was then sprayed in the face with pepper spray at point blank range while  she was lying prone and cuffed on the floor. No investigation of the officers’ actions was conducted. In another tape, a cooperative inmate was ordered to kneel. While he was attempting to comply, he was thrown by an officer into a wall, which caused a wound above his eye.

The letter is full of incidents like this. A general pattern emerges. The officers attack an inmate, then accuse the inmate of being combative. Then the use of force escalates. None of this conduct is investigated. These officers seem particularly fond of pepper spray.

Medical treatment is also routinely denied or inadequate. In two instances, 16 year old girls were placed on psychotropic medications without their parents’ consent.

The letter cites U.S. Supreme Court cases holding that excessive use of physical force against an inmate violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment, like Hudson v. McMillian.  Likewise, indifference towards a prisoner’s serious medical needs also violates the Eighth Amendment. See Estelle v. Gamble.

After documenting all of these unconstitutional practices for 40 pages, the letter ends in a conciliatory manner:

“We hope to continue working with the County in an amicable and cooperative fashion to resolve our outstanding concerns regarding WCJ, and to develop specific policies and procedures that will implement the remedial measures discussed above.”

As a reward for this cooperation, some of the findings can remain secret:  “Assuming the County continues to cooperate, we also would be willing to send our consultants’ evaluations under separate cover. These reports are not public documents. Although the consultants’ evaluations and work do not necessarily reflect the official conclusions of the Department of Justice, their observations, analysis, and recommendations provide further elaboration on the issues discussed in this letter and offer practical technical assistance in addressing them.”

If the jail doesn’t comply, there may be a lawsuit. I’m sure that threat must have struck terror into the hearts of the warden and his officers.

Where is the outrage? Lets face it. Westchester County Jail isn’t unusual. This is the norm for U.S. detention facilities. In fact, I would venture to say most are worse.  Little public sympathy can be found when the victims are convicted criminals.

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