A lawsuit filed in federal court last week alleges guards on Rikers Island brutally beat a man visiting his longtime partner at the Eric M. Taylor Center because he is gay. Thomas Hamm argues he was “denied access to public accommodations and services on the basis of his actual and/or perceived sexual orientation, suffered serious physical injuries, and was deprived of his liberty.”
On May 9, 2014, Hamm was “holding and/or rubbing hands” with his partner “PF” in the visitation room when a guard named CO Gatling approached him and said, “we don’t want that faggot shit in here.” The two ceased touching but continued their visit.
A male CO then appeared and declared their visit over, the lawsuit states, because of “the corrections officers’ apparent homophobia.”
The guards ordered Hamm to leave the facility and he complied, but first went to collect a security pass he needed before he could board the bus. CO Gatling was holding his pass in her outstretched hand, and when he took it from her, she snatched it back.
Hamm asked for her to return it, at which point CO Gatling and two other CO’s named Mack and Doe attacked him, “beating him around the right side of his head.” Paramedics came and handcuffed Hamm to a stretcher, and he was taken to Elmhurst hospital overnight.
When he was released, the CO’s took Hamm back to Rikers Island and forced him to sign an order banning him from the island for 180 days. The lawsuit states that Hamm was then charged with assault and harassment based on “false allegations” that served to “to cover-up their own misdeeds in unlawfully beating and arresting Mr. Hamm.” He was released on his own recognizance and the charges against him were “adjourned in contemplation of dismissal.”
The behavior outlined in Hamm’s lawsuit underscores the complexity of the problem the city faces in trying to reform rather than close an institution that has been a hotbed of hatred and violence over the last few decades. Last November, the city announced it would build a special housing unit for trans women on Rikers Island in an attempt to curb violence against them, improve their living conditions and take care of their medical and mental health needs. Extensive staff training was supposed to be a part of this package, although there are some concerns that such a specialized unit could turn out to be de facto isolation for such inmates.
Other Rikers reforms included increased oversight of guard behavior and, more fundamentally, the creation of an actual recruitment program for Rikers guards, for the city has gone without one for several years now. These issues were covered in the federal government’s settlement with the city two months ago. The city’s Department of Investigation found hiring practices on Rikers failed to identify numerous red flags among new hires, including low IQ scores, failing NYPD exam scores, mental health disorders and gang ties.
It’s too early to tell what, if any, impact the new buildings, improved recruitment and focused trainings will have on the infamous “deep-seated culture of brutality” among guards on Rikers Island. But stories such as Hamm’s shed light on just how big of a challenge a serious transformation will be.