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In NY Jails, Prisoners Must Submit Their Abuse Grievances to Their Abusers

Legal victories by LGBTQ people and youth of color face rollbacks amid the rise of new, reactionary sheriffs.

A protester waves toward prisoners at the Metropolitan Detention Center, on February 4, 2019, in Brooklyn, New York.

Can openly transphobic and homophobic jailers be relied upon to enforce nondiscrimination settlements? Can disabled and injured youth, especially young Black men, depend upon legal settlements to end abuse in our jails? These are the dilemmas incarcerated people and their families face following recent court victories against sheriffs, jailers and jail administrators, and county governments.

New York state presents a bellwether case for these efforts, and nowhere more starkly than in the overlooked county jails in small towns and rural areas. Counties outside New York City now cage 10,000 people, almost twice the number incarcerated in New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail, and more than the total state prison population in 20 states. Indeed, all across the nation jails have become, in the words of the abolitionist editors of the new book The Jail is Everywhere, “the new center of the carceral state.”

New York’s signature 2022 bail reform law dramatically reduced jail populations. Since then, it has been rolled back incrementally through three legislation actions as New York’s Gov. Kathy Hochul — the first upstate governor in over 100 years — has insisted. In December 2023, Hochul vetoed legislation that would have made it easier for people to overturn convictions and did the same to a bill that would have expanded compensation to victims of abuse, including incarcerated people. A new state law severely restricting solitary confinement continues to be openly circumvented by prison wardens and county jailers.

Advances nevertheless continue, often in unexpected areas. Families and their lawyers have won startling court victories recently, focusing on sexuality, gender and disability abuse. These raise the prospect of forcing real policy changes in jails large and small. Further, scores of new sexual abuse cases against county jails, made possible by the extension of the deadline to file sexual abuse complaints, are wending their way through the courts. One law firm alone had filed close to 80 complaints against counties as the deadline to file passed in November 2023.

Police, sheriffs and prosecutors, emboldened by receding social protest, are promoting a “gentler” face of incarceration while pushing new wars on drugs and crime. They aren’t necessarily winning: In New York City on January 30, 2024, the city council voted to overturn Mayor Eric Adams’s drive to revive stop-and-frisk and solitary confinement. Statewide, however, the picture is grim, matching an ongoing national backlash against hard-won criminal legal reforms. Indeed, it’s in these smaller towns where many of the toughest battles against abuse in prisons are being waged.

Victories for Trans Rights

Two new court victories by transgender women are particularly stunning. The first complaint was filed in 2019 by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) on behalf of Jena Faith, a woman and a veteran. Faith had long been recognized as female on her New York state driver’s license and Social Security records, and when sent to the Steuben County Jail to await trial, she was first housed in the women’s section. Shortly thereafter, she was abruptly transferred to the men’s section where she was denied basic medications and repeatedly abused and sexually harassed by officers.

Faith’s 2020 settlement required the sheriff and county to house and treat persons according to their self-identified gender, including their housing assignments, access to clothing, medicines and medical care, and the use of pronouns and names. The NYCLU sent a letter to the State Commission on Correction (SCOC), New York state’s jail regulatory body, urging it to require and enforce these LGBTQ rights. They received no response.

The second lawsuit was filed on behalf of Black trans woman Makyyla Holland against Broome County, the county sheriff, the jail’s medical staff and almost a dozen jailers. Local activist organizations investigated, supported and organized around the effort. Like Faith, Holland was housed in men’s quarters and openly discriminated against by officers on the basis of her transgender status and disability. Officers beat her, subjected her to illegal strip searches, and denied prescribed medications including antidepressants and hormone treatments — leading to severe withdrawal pain.

Holland’s August 2023 settlement mandated the county and the sheriff adhere to specific measures to meet the gender, clothing, housing and medical requirements of trans and LGBTQ persons. The sheriff agreed to maintain “a zero-tolerance policy for any staff sexual misconduct (which includes sexual contact and/or sexual harassment) directed towards any inmate, including inmates that identify as LGBTI.” The penalty? “Any substantiated claim of sexual misconduct by a staff member towards an inmate may result in discipline up to and including termination of the staff member’s employment and/or referral for criminal charges.”

Victories for Youth

Abuse of youth has been similarly subject to public exposure, serial lawsuits and legal victories. I’ve seen this firsthand: On February 13, 2020, I and a youth volunteer visited Taej’on Vega, an injured Black/Latiné teenager with a recognized mental disability, in the same jail in Broome County at the request of his mother as part of a local activist organization Justice and Unity for the Southern Tier’s (JUST) jail visiting team. Vega had been denied several stabilizing medications he’d long been taking despite his mother’s persistent pleas to jail administrators and medical staff.

Three days before our visit, officers raided Vega’s pod. As documented in court papers, he went prone on the floor of his unit as requested. Officers then proceeded to handcuff him and drag him to his cell by his outstretched arms. There they beat him on the head, back, chest and face, calling him the n-word repeatedly. They then uncuffed him and told him “Strip, n*****,” and proceeded with a sexually abusive body search. Vega was left naked in his cell, coughing up blood, badly bruised and traumatized.

Vega’s mother has been a fierce defender of her son, engaging with community activists and seeking out the help of Legal Services of Central New York, which filed a complaint against the sheriff, the county and jailers. Legal Services had two years earlier won another case exposing especially brutal physical, mental and sexual abuse of youth in the jail. In Vega’s case it was the pictures that his mother took on a video call that proved decisive.

Screenshots from a video call show Vega's bruises.
Screenshots from a video call show Vega’s bruises.

A September 2023 court ruling revealed that jail administrators and officers engaged in a facility-wide effort that resulted in the disappearance of evidence, including body-worn camera video. The county was ordered to pay court fees and barred from using false statements in future legal actions.

Victory by Law, Defeat by Grievance?

But the recent court judgements press the question: Will court and legislative victories actually change abuse by officers and jail administrators?

Here the rulings provide no easy answer. The court ruled in favor of Vega, but any personal reparations and directives like those in the Holland case have been hidden from public sight by a recent nondisclosure agreement with the county. Faith and Holland received $60,000 and $160,000 settlements respectively paid by the counties — hardly a figure that would deter future abuse. None of their abusers were punished or convicted. None of the persons named in lawsuits are known to have been disciplined. Indeed, of the two officers named in the Steuben County settlement, and the 16 revealed in the Broome County cases, 13 remain employed at full pay while five have since retired.

So, what are new survivors of jailer abuse in New York state to do? The only mechanism to enforce the Holland anti-abuse agreement rests in the settlement’s directive that incarcerated persons should file complaints “in accordance with the grievance procedures set forth in the Inmate Handbook.” Broome County, which has the highest jail incarceration rate of any of the New York state’s 62 counties, including the Bronx and Brooklyn, gives every person entering its jail a copy of the prisoner handbook. It tells incarcerated persons to request and then fill out a grievance slip, which goes to the jail administration and, if approved for review, then moves upward to the SCOC in Albany.

But decades of evidence demonstrates that this process has served only to cloak and deny harassment, hunger and abuse. Media and state agencies have steadily reported the severe failures of counties’ grievance procedures. Numerous incarcerated persons have written to the press and posted online essays detailing accounts of how loved ones are denied a grievance slip, or are told that the time limit to file for appeal has passed. On every front it is a catch-22: You must file a grievance to get a hearing, and everywhere that grievance is denied by bureaucratic process.

Vega was one of the few who, despite beatings and transfer to an isolation cell out of reach of his mother, was able to file a grievance. It was denied. He appealed to the next level up, the jail’s Chief Administrative Office, which denied the appeal.

It’s a common problem. As another incarcerated person JUST has worked with, who requested to remain anonymous, wrote to Truthout, “The grievance officer is the same officer who sentences on disciplinary hearings (a conflict of interest?) How can a grievance ever get justified by someone who works for the same entity you’re grieving?”

Yet another incarcerated person who wrote me offered this blunt assessment: “The grievance officer, who is also the hearing officer, is literally out of control. Rather than attempting to resolve problems, or defuse situations, he instead acts in an aggressive manner with the intention to instigate conflicts with inmates. I have personally seen him, not once, not twice, but numerous times, act aggressively towards inmates — both verbally and physically.”

This officer, named in multiple abuse and wrongful death lawsuits, is still working full time.

Moreover, if a grievance actually does get filed and acted upon, almost no complaint ever makes it out of the jail and up to the regulatory body, the SCOC. The last Broome County Sheriff’s annual report lists only 27 grievances filed in a year, and not a single complaint about staff, policies, legal or service issues were forwarded to the SCOC.

What about the few grievances from other county jails that do reach the SCOC? In 2018 the state comptroller issued a scathing report on the SCOC’s inability to track and handle grievances. It hasn’t gotten better since then. Of the thousands of grievances arriving annually, less than 1 percent were accepted in recent years, with 97 percent rejected outright, according to SCOC’s own 2020 and 2021 annual reports. As a recent investigation by New York Focus documented, the SCOC grievance review committee takes no more than eight seconds to decide a case.

Modernizing Mass Incarceration

The election in Broome County of a new, younger and more energetic sheriff, former Republican State Sen. Frederick Akshar, offers up a carceral promise of modern and efficient jail operations that follow new state laws. It’s an image the new sheriff has vigorously promoted in public speeches, press releases and op-eds under his name. Last month Akshar presented a first-year progress report detailing advances in food, housing and participation by nonprofit organizations. Long backed by sheriffs’ and officers’ associations, Akshar offers a statewide model for the modernization of mass incarceration in the post-2020 era.

Sheriff Akshar continues to oppose legal and legislative bail reform, restrictions on solitary confinement, and timely and elder parole reforms, among others. When a Black woman with a substance use disorder miscarried under his care, he argued she should be prosecuted for the “murder” of her fetus. Local activists continue to report difficulties in medical care, grievances, solitary, the treatment of LGBTQ persons, and contest his claims about progress in local op-eds.

More narrowly, recent legal victories have forced change in policy documents, with county sheriffs across the state agreeing to the directives in the Holland settlement. But do these reforms have any teeth? Does the newest version of the Broome County Jail prisoner handbook reflect changes in the wake of the trans and youth rulings?

Not exactly. The 2023 handbook simply replicates the previous 2020 one, with few changes for the first 37 of 40 pages. There’s nothing specific that addresses the Holland requirements related to sex, gender or trans status in the sections dealing with incarcerated people’s classification upon entry, assignment to a housing unit, access to clothing, or medical services relevant to trans persons or those with related disabilities. There’s just one boilerplate paragraph that says the sheriff doesn’t tolerate sexual harassment.

The three new pages at the very end address new policy. Almost two pages address the use of the tablets, which generate considerable profits for a sheriff’s slush fund and have become instruments of social control when access is arbitrarily removed by officers.

Still, there is a full new page in the 2023 handbook on the on the 2003 national Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). There have not, however, been any notified PREA violation reports, nor have any been forwarded to the SCOC from the jail that we know of. No employee has been known to have been punished for such behavior.

What JUST does know, from direct interviews of visitors, is that at least two incarcerated persons have tried to report PREA violations but were unable to get a grievance slip. One was punished by being put in solitary. When JUST tried to find a jail or county PREA officer for the person to contact, we were unable to locate any. More recently, another incarcerated person wrote to us that they tried to file a PREA grievance and were formally punished instead.

“Justice” and Oversight… on Paper

The conclusions are grim: Lacking real oversight, the promise of constraining abuse by enforcing legal victories all too easily vanishes into thin air. Abusers are left in power and unpunished; jail procedures and practices remain hidden behind closed doors. Legal victories, like past reforms, all too easily increase funding and power of local sheriffs. Broome County’s jail population has dropped from over 500 to less than 300. Yet as The Jail is Everywhere assesses 10 years of struggle there, reforms have been captured by the sheriff. Funding for incarceration has significantly expanded after the addition of a new medical pod, the removal of youth from the jail and the recent introduction of medically assisted treatment for substance use. This past year the sheriff hired over 30 new correctional officers.

No effective independent or community oversight body exists. New public relations efforts by sheriffs proliferate across the media, further obscuring what goes on behind bars. Local and statewide legislators and a few state agencies in New York have the legal right to visit and inspect the jails without forewarning. But none upstate actually do so. County sheriffs in New York wield all the police and military power of police chiefs. Once elected, and most often repeatedly elected, they answer to no one but themselves.

Still, incarcerated people fight for rights, protests against abuse continue and new court cases get filed. In Broome County a $5 million wrongful death lawsuit by the family of Thomas Husar, who died unnecessarily in jail, is underway — although it too is likely to result in a nondisclosure agreement. In Erie County, activists have succeeded in getting an agreement that allows unfettered, oversight access by qualified clergy to incarcerated people in Buffalo’s large jails. Upstate activists organized by the statewide Jails Justice Network are moving forward with new legislation to provide oversight and human rights in all New York county jails. These actions have propelled decarceration by lowering the numbers incarcerated across the state. Jails may become more humane. This does not entail however a radical dismantling of the criminal injustice complex. Abolition and the creation of healing and supportive alternatives to mass incarceration and mass policing remain very much in front of us.

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