Systemic police misconduct has come under increasing scrutiny over the past decade after the killings of George Floyd, Breanna Taylor and many more. But widespread violent behavior by correctional officers against prisoners has remained largely hidden behind barbed wire.
Our two-year investigation, “In New York Prisons, Guards Who Brutalize Prisoners Rarely Get Fired,” uncovered a culture of laxity on the part of corrections officials and impunity on the part of officers. In many documented cases in which prisoners were badly injured or died as a result of assaults by guards, the corrections department did not even try to punish officers. And when the agency did try to fire guards accused of abusing prisoners or covering up attacks, it failed 90% of the time.
Using two key data sources, as well as thousands of pages of court records, we identified more than 290 cases in which the state tried to oust prison guards for abusing people in custody. In the vast majority of cases, the firing effort failed. We also identified more than 160 instances in which prisoners or their families won lawsuits or received settlements after alleging abuse at the hands of guards. The department seldom disciplined those officers.
This investigation was built upon a database tracking prison-employee discipline cases and lawsuits the state settled for the corrections agency. The first came to us through public records laws and required countless hours of work to clean and report out many of the more than 5,600 records in it. The second database we built ourselves, based upon more than 13,000 pages of court records we acquired from the state attorney general’s office.
To understand the trends in the records, and to tell the stories of the people behind the data, we conducted dozens of interviews. We spoke with agency officials, former investigators, arbitrators, union leaders and lawyers, as well as people currently and formerly incarcerated and their families. In a few cases, we reviewed photographic evidence and video, though they were rare and often difficult to obtain.
One of our most troubling findings came directly from our data analysis. Again and again groups of correctional officers were working together to hide cases where prisoners had been abused and injured. In analyzing the discipline data, we found scores of cases where one or more officers at the same prison were accused of assaulting a prisoner and others lied to investigators to cover it up. We confirmed each of the cases using arbitration and court records and with inquiries to the prison agency. We showed that this pattern played out on average every two months over 12 years. The data showed us that the prison agency wasn’t simply bad at firing individual guards accused of abuse, the culture of the department allowed the guards themselves to assault prisoners and then work together to cover it up.