Monday, April 5, 2010

Lies, Gowns, and Searches at Rikers

City jails have been engaged in the illegal practice of strip searching New Yorkers accused on misdemeanor crimes, and the Bloomberg Administration has consistently lied in depositions with regard to the continued abuses.

Strip Search Abuse

Courts ruled in 1986 that routine strip searches of those who have been brought to jail based on suspicion of involvement in low-level non-violent crimes were illegal. Nonetheless, New York City continued the practice of illegal strip searches and faced lawsuits in subsequent years.

In 2001, New York City agreed to settle a class-action suit related to the illegal strip search activity in the New York City jails. The settlement cost New York City $43 million. The City continued the practice further and settled another law suit in 2002 while promising to finally end the strip search abuses.

The strip searches continued, however. When faced with yet another law suit, the Bloomberg Administration decided it was better to lie in depositions than to admit that they had been violating the law non-stop for two decades and after multiple law suits and tens of millions of dollars of settlement costs.


Jim Dwyer of the New York Times provided an excellent summary of what occurred in the latest law suit, which resulted in yet another settlement payment. This time, the price tag was $33 million.

Beyond the cost of the settlement, this case has another striking feature: hard-core dishonesty by officials in the Department of Correction.

“Practically every single person we deposed from the Department of Correction swore that they never have seen a strip-search,” said Richard Emery, whose firm brought the lawsuit. “They all said, ‘We give everyone gowns, they go into cubicles, and we search them like the Queen of England.’ ”

Yet 30 people jailed on Rikers Island told a much different story in their depositions, according to papers filed in the case. They said they had been forced to strip, usually in groups, and to spread their buttocks. Women were required to remove sanitary pads and lift their breasts. They had been arrested on misdemeanor charges, not felonies; they were on Rikers Island awaiting trial because they could not make bail.
In effect, the lawsuit came down to a swearing contest that pitted the testimony of low-income people accused of low-level crimes against officials of nearly every rank in the city jail system.

What was the truth?

Mr. Emery’s law firm demanded that the city show that it had actually bought disposable gowns for all the searches. It took more than a year of haggling before the invoices were produced, with the city at first saying they were irrelevant, and then claiming that they could not be located.

EVENTUALLY, records showed that the city had bought 45,900 disposable gowns for the jails from July 2002 to August 2007, but many of them never left a central warehouse, said Elizabeth S. Saylor of Mr. Emery’s firm. During that time, 145,587 searches were done on people being held on misdemeanor charges. The city didn’t come close to having gowns for each and every one, as the jail officials had sworn. Shortly after turning over these records, the city conceded that there had been a “pattern and practice of strip-searches.”

Why did they continue when the Bloomberg administration promised that they would end? Has anyone in government been held accountable for not complying with the 2002 promises, or for denying under oath the plain truth of what was going on?

History has taught us that illegal activities, unethical activities, and lies are tolerated in the Bloomberg Administration. The stop-and-frisk abuses continue. The racial discrimination in the Fire Department was never acknowledged or redressed. The Mayor's mysterious and apparently illegal contributions to the Independence Party have not been thoroughly investigated.

No one should expect that anyone will be held accountable for the years of strip search abuse or for the lies told during the law suit. But, all of us should demand accountability and demand that the Bloomberg Administration commit itself to higher standards. The Bloomberg Administration has nearly 4 more years in power, and we cannot tolerate 4 more years of abuses and lies.

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