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We Spent Two Years Investigating Abuse by Prison Guards in New York. Here Are Five Takeaways.

The state fails to fire most corrections officers it accuses of violence against prisoners or covering up abuse.

An illustration shows three correctional officers in the foreground, in shades of dark gray.  In the background, there are three correctional officers in light gray.  Two of the officers are holding up the arms of an incarcerated person in an orange uniform, while one officer covers the incarcerated person's mouth.

New York’s prison system has failed to fire nearly all corrections officers it accused of attacking people in their custody. And guards often work in groups to cover-up assaults by lying to investigators and in official reports, a Marshall Project investigation has found.

Reporters examined how New York disciplines guards for misconduct. Using public records laws, we got a database of disciplinary records that state law had kept secret for decades. Here are five takeaways from our investigation — based on our analysis of that database, thousands of pages of documents, several videos and scores of interviews with prisoners, officials and experts.

New York’s discipline system favors prison guards.

Over 12 years, the New York corrections department tried to fire officers or supervisors the agency accused of physically abusing prisoners or covering up misconduct in more than 290 cases. But in only 10% of those cases did the officers get fired. That's despite the agency classifying the employees as threats to the safety and security of prisons. Some of the officers retired or resigned, but the vast majority managed to keep their jobs.

Examples include a guard whom the state tried to fire three times in three years for using excessive force; an officer who broke his baton hitting a prisoner 35 times; and guards who beat a prisoner so badly he needed 13 staples to close gashes in his scalp.

The guards’ union contract requires any effort to fire an officer to be subject to outside arbitrators, who have final say on whether guards lose their jobs. In abuse cases, arbitrators ruled in favor of officers three-quarters of the time. Arbitrators often said the state’s evidence was insufficient or found prisoners’ testimony unconvincing.

The union, the New York State Corrections Officers and Police Benevolent Association, said officers are entitled to due process and that the few responsible for wrongdoing should be held accountable.

In many cases of serious abuse, officials didn’t try to discipline the officers accused.

The Marshall Project identified more than 160 lawsuits where, under a court order or settlement, the state paid damages to people who said guards abused them. Records show that the department did not try to discipline officers in 88% of those cases, including some in which prisoners were permanently injured or even killed.

Examples include a prisoner whose account of a beating at the hands of officers was so strong, a jury awarded him $1 million; a judge called it “the strongest excessive force case” she’d seen in her career. In another case, where a man was killed by officers after allegedly refusing to clean his cell, the state agreed to pay his family $5 million. The agency did not try to discipline the officers in either incident.

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A culture of cover-ups among guards makes it hard to hold them accountable.

Guards often work in groups to conceal violent assaults by lying to investigators and on official reports, records show. Then the officers file charges accusing prisoners of assaulting them.

In three-quarters of the abuse cases where managers tried to fire officers, the department also accused them of a cover-up, often by acting in concert. The department tried to discipline guards for incidents in which one or more were accused of committing abuse while others lied to hide it, bringing a case, on average, every two months over 12 years.

In about half of roughly 160 lawsuits that we examined, prisoners complained that after violent incidents, guards retaliated against them by filing false charges of assault and sending them to solitary confinement.

The corrections officers’ powerful union has protected this disciplinary process.

A key reason prison officials find it so hard to get rid of guards is the contract the state signed with the officers’ union in 1972. The agreement gives the final say on firing an officer to arbitrators hired by the union and the state — a system the union successfully kept in later contracts. Only a court can overturn arbitration decisions.

The union has significant political influence, especially in rural communities that are home to prisons and their workers. It has protected members’ jobs even as the number of people incarcerated in New York has plunged by nearly half since 2010 and the state closed two dozen prisons.

Our investigation captures only a fraction of prisoner abuse.

Experts say the records reviewed for this investigation probably reflect just a portion of the violence guards inflict in New York’s corrections system. Many prisoners do not file complaints because they fear retaliation or not being believed. And in most of the state’s 44 prisons, officers do not wear body cameras, which sometimes help prove abuse.

Read more about how the state failed to fire guards accused of abuse and how guards covered up assaults. Read about how we did our investigation, and tell us about your experience working inside prisons.

CREDITS

For The Marshall Project

Reporting by Alysia Santo, Joseph Neff, Tom Meagher and Ilica Mahajan.

Data review by Peter Buffo, Andrew Rodriguez Calderón, Carla Canning, Liset Cruz, David Eads, Ariel Goodman, Geoff Hing, Weihua Li and Ilica Mahajan.

Illustrations by Dion MBD.

Photographs by DeSean McClinton-Holland, Joshua Rashaad McFadden, Heather Ainsworth and Alysia Santo.

Design and development by Bo-Won Keum, Katie Park and Andrew Rodriguez Calderón.

Art direction and photo editing by Bo-Won Keum and Celina Fang.

Copy editing by Ghazala Irshad.

Audience engagement by Ashley Dye.

Engagement reporting by Nicole Lewis.

Editing by Leslie Eaton and Manuel Torres.

For The New York Times

Video by Jeesoo Park.

Photo editing by Jeffrey Furticella.

Copy editing by Ellen Tumposky.

Audience engagement by Jennie Coughlin.

Editing by Michael LaForgia and Kirsten Danis.

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Alysia Santo Twitter Email is a staff writer. She has investigated criminal justice issues including for-profit prisoner transportation, the bail industry, victim compensation and the sexual abuse of people behind bars. Her reporting has spurred state and federal investigations, and was awarded Harvard’s Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2021. She is also a three-time finalist for the Livingston Award and was twice named runner-up for the John Jay College/H.F. Guggenheim Prize for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting.

Joseph Neff Twitter Email is a staff writer who has investigated wrongful convictions, prosecutorial and police misconduct, probation, cash bail and forensic ‘science’. He was a Pulitzer finalist and has won the Goldsmith, RFK, MOLLY, SPJ’s Sigma Delta Chi, Gerald Loeb, Michael Kelly and other awards. He previously worked at The News & Observer (Raleigh) and The Associated Press.