City officials had transferred Washington from Rikers to the jail in Albany, New York, after he was accused of attacking a guard. Soon after he arrived, guards there beat him, he said. His tooth was chipped, his lip was split and he had bruises all over his body.
Then he was sentenced to serve 360 days in solitary isolation.
Washington was one of four young detainees who sued the city last year, charging that city correction officials had sent them to the Albany County Correctional Facility knowing they would be beaten and thrown into solitary confinement for months. They claimed the transfers were intended to circumvent the city’s ban on using isolation as a punishment for youths.
On Friday, the four men reached a $980,000 legal settlement with the city. As part of the deal, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration reversed its earlier position and agreed to stop transferring young inmates from the city’s jails to the Albany County jail.
“In the future nobody will have to go through what we went through,” Washington said in a phone interview Friday. “They won’t have to experience that feeling.”
Four years ago, the city banned solitary confinement for inmates 21 and younger, a bold policy change that solidified de Blasio’s national image as a progressive leader in criminal-justice reform.
The ban came amid public outrage over the suicide in that same year of Kalief Browder, a young man who spent three years at Rikers Island, much of it in solitary confinement, before charges against him were dropped.
But, even as the mayor trumpeted the change, city correction officials quietly stepped up a practice of sending young inmates who they believed posed a security or safety risk to jails outside the city, where they could be kept in isolation for months, The New York Times reported last year.
De Blasio defended that policy, saying the city needed the ability to transfer some inmates to other counties for their own protection.
Under Friday’s settlement, the city has promised not to send inmates to the Albany County jail, but it will continue to transfer inmates to other counties if they are vulnerable to attack or present a high risk to other inmates or to guards.
“We believe there are a small number of cases where a transfer makes sense to protect the safety and security of individuals in our facilities,” a spokeswoman for the mayor, Avery Cohen, said in a statement. “The settlement will result in a more transparent process, which we believe is in the best interest of all parties.”
Washington, who had been convicted of attempted robbery, was 21 when he was transferred from Rikers Island to the Albany facility in March 2018, two weeks after he said he had gotten into an altercation with a deputy warden.
Currently, 10 detainees are being housed in jails outside of the city, including one person who is under 22. The city has not sent inmates to the Albany jail since November 2018, officials said.
The settlement came as de Blasio celebrated the City Council’s decision to close Rikers Island and to build new jails in four boroughs — his main criminal justice initiative since becoming mayor. That decision marked a milestone in the effort to reduce the jail population in New York City.
While de Blasio had been a leader in that effort, some advocates for inmates and elected officials criticized the administration’s practice of transferring young inmates to county jails.
Not only did the practice seem to be an end-run around the city’s own rule on solitary confinement, these critics said, it seemed to fly in the face of the plan to close Rikers Island and move inmates closer to their families and to legal services.
“Hopefully, this case sends a message: The city can’t absolve itself of responsibility from what happens to its detainees just by transferring them,” said Doug Lieb, a lawyer for the four young men. “They should monitor and prevent a situation where detainees are being brutalized or treated in an unlawful manner. ”
Officials in Albany and in New York did not admit wrongdoing as part of the settlement, and the evidence will not be tested at trial.
But a federal judge in Manhattan said in an April ruling that permitted the lawsuit to go forward that the transfers appeared to be punitive and referred the matter to state and federal prosecutors for investigation. The Albany County sheriff, Craig Apple, did not return a request for comment.
“Barbarity of the sort alleged — cannot be tolerated in a civilized society,” Chief Judge Colleen McMahon wrote in the decision. “There is reason to conclude, even at this early stage, that at least some of the horrors that are described in that pleading actually took place.”
One inmate, Steven Espinal, who had led an attack on a Rikers guard last year, was stomped and kicked so badly at the Albany jail that he lost hearing in his left ear and passed blood in his urine, the lawsuit said. Following hospitalization, he was sentenced to 600 days in solitary confinement.
Espinal is serving a 10-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to the Rikers attack, and to attempted murder and weapons possession in connection with his original arrest.
Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are investigating the allegations and recently interviewed the young men, one of their lawyers, Katie Rosenfeld, said.
The lawsuit claimed the abuse was designed to punish inmates from Rikers who had been accused of assaulting correction officers, in violation of their constitutional rights. The inmates claimed high-ranking correction officials in Albany targeted them for brutal treatment. The suit named as defendants the City of New York, Albany County officials and individual correction officers.
The city, in court papers, placed the blame on the state Commission on Correction, which authorized the jail transfers. The judge dismissed that argument.
Under the agreement, inmates sent to the Albany jail after de Blasio leaves office must be treated according to New York City rules, meaning solitary confinement for inmates under 22 would be outlawed, according to the agreement.
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