Nassau, Suffolk Jail Lawsuits Allege Failures, Increase Scrutiny

Long Island’s county jails have been shackled by a string of legal setbacks in the past month as a new $185 million correctional center opens in Suffolk County.

Five female ex-inmates at Suffolk jail in Riverhead filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against a corrections officer and, in a separate case, a judge consolidated claims by more than 100 inmates into a class-action suit alleging conditions there are deplorable. Nassau County jail also got bad news when New York State criticized the East Meadow facility for failing to prevent a former soldier from committing suicide and a judge ordered the county to implement an oversight panel that had been neglected by the past three county executives.

“None of it is surprising at all,” said Barbara Allan, founder of Prison Families Anonymous, a Long Island-based inmate advocacy group. “They both leave a lot to be desired,” she said of the jails on either side of the county line.

The developments come after Nassau County jail had seven inmate deaths in two years, including five suicides—giving it one of the highest county jail suicide rates statewide—a medical death and an inmate homicide that’s still under investigation. Inmates reportedly died at Suffolk jail in February and last June.

Nassau County Jail: Suicides, Health Care Changes, Budget Cuts Prompt Calls For Oversight

The New York State Commission on Correction found that Bartholomew Ryan, a 32-year-old ex-Marine from Seaford who’d served in Iraq, was not on suicide watch despite Nassau jail knowing he needed constant mental health supervision before he hanged himself in his cell on Feb. 24, 2012.

“He received inadequate evaluation and treatment by Armor Correctional Health Care, Inc.,” the commission wrote in its partially redacted five-page report. Armor is the private firm hired by Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano to treat inmates at the jail. The agency recommended the firm and the jail retrain staffers and make Automatic External Defibrillators more easily accessible to help save inmates quicker.

Representatives for Armor referred questions to jail officials, who were not available for comment. Nassau County Attorney John Ciampoli said Nassau Sheriff Michael Sposato is “very conscientious” and that the jail’s “policies and procedures are constantly under review to make them the best that they can be.”

The explanation was little consolation to Ryan’s grieving family, which is suing the jail.

“This entity couldn’t get it together enough to actually be there to help save his life,” Thomas Ryan, the soldier’s brother, told News12 Long Island.  “How could Nassau County, one of the richest counties in the country, not have the proper training in the jail? It’s ridiculous to me that that could happen.”

The March 19 corrections commission report on Ryan was issued the same day that U.S. District Court Judge Joanna Seybert granted class-action status for plaintiffs in 111 individual lawsuits making similar claims of grotesquely inhumane conditions at Suffolk County’s two jails. Among those allegations are broken toilets “ping-ponging” waste between cells, mold-encrusted showers, overcrowding, rodent and insect infestations and inadequate heating.

A new minimum-security jail in Yaphank was mandated by New York State to increase capacity and ease overcrowding in Riverhead, although construction has yet to begin on a second phase of the jail that’s projected to cost more than $100 million.

“For too long, county officials have been content to force people to live in degrading conditions that are unfit for a civilized society,” said Amol Sinha, director of the New York Civil Liberty Union’s Suffolk chapter. “It’s time for them to meet their moral and constitutional obligations to provide humane conditions at the jails.”

The federal suit includes inmates who were held at Suffolk’s jails in both Riverhead and Yaphank as far back as 2009—jail inmates who haven’t made bail while their trials were pending or were serving sentences of less than one year on misdemeanor convictions, as opposed to convicted felons serving prison time in an upstate penitentiary.

A Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office representative referred questions about the lawsuit to the county attorney’s office.

“We don’t comment on pending litigation,” Suffolk County Attorney Dennis Brown said. “We will review the papers and we will defend the interest of the county and its employees.”

A week after that pair of same-day developments, Acting State Supreme Court Justice James McCormack ordered Mangano to comply with a county charter provision mandating the establishment of an independent, seven-member board charged with overseeing and reforming conditions at Nassau jail—a mandate that has gone unfulfilled since 1990.

“More than 20 years after Nassau County voters overwhelmingly approved this charter amendment, there will finally be much-needed oversight at the jail,” said Jason Starr, director of the NYCLU’s Nassau chapter. The group has received hundreds of complaints from Nassau jail inmates about being deprived of medication, mental health services and the mistreatment of people with disabilities.

Nassau County Attorney John Ciampoli said the appointments will be made within the 90-day deadline that the judge set. “We’ve advised the court that a full seven appointments are now pending before the legislature from the county executive,” Ciampoli said.

Once they’re appointed, the Board of Visitors’ volunteer panelists—people with a “working knowledge of the correctional system,” mandates the amendment—will have an office at the jail as well as access to jail records, books and data.

Five days after that ruling, a quintet of women filed a federal lawsuit alleging that in 2009 and 2010 they “were subjected to sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexually degrading treatment by Sergeant Joseph Foti,” who has since retired. They also claim that he punished them when they complained about the harassment.

The Sheriff’s office also referred questions on this case to the county attorney, who could only say that he would “vigorously” defend the county.

The plaintiffs include former pre-trial detainees Sharon Watts, Tara Lucente, Michelle Atkinson, Jamie Culoso and Catherine Andres, who estimate in their lawsuit that more than 40 other women were also sexually harassed but are afraid to come forward.

“Get used to it, you’re in jail,” Corrections Officer Santa Cruz, head of security at the jail, allegedly told Watts when she complained, according to the lawsuit. They’re represented by Southold-based attorney Laura A. Solinger, who’s also seeking class-action status.

“Because these women are incarcerated, they’re literally trapped and can’t leave,” she told Newsday. “It’s unlike at a job, where you can get in you car and drive away. You’re so vulnerable there. This makes this abuse that much more intense. They have to stay where they are and see him the next day, and the next day and the next.”