The City of New York and its Department of Correction have settled a discrimination case with a man who says guards at Rikers Island viciously beat him after a visit with his male partner. The city will award Thomas Hamm $280,000, reiterate—on the record—the DOC's unequivocal non-discrimination policy toward visitors, and ensure that correction officers receive training in that policy as part of the agreement.
The incident happened in May 2014 when Hamm was visting his longterm partner at Rikers. The DOC's "Directive on Inmate Visit Procedures" allows inmates to kiss, hug, and hold hands, which is precisely what Hamm and his partner tried to do. While other inmates embraced their visitors without incident, though, C.O.s allegedly ordered Hamm and his partner apart.
After they sat down at a table and held hands, the guards allegedly yelled at them again, calling them anti-gay slurs. Hamm says they shut down the visit quickly, obligating him to leave early. On his way out, one of the officers allegedly menaced Hamm, saying, "Fucking homosexual, who the fuck do you think you are?" and told him he'd "burn in hell." When he tried to leave, he says, a group of guards allegedly attacked him, throwing him to the ground and beating him until he bled.
Hamm was admitted to Elmhurst hospital with facial fractures and head trauma, and shackled to his bed overnight. Upon discharge from the hospital, Correction Officers took Hamm back to Rikers, where he was issued an order banning him from the facility for 180 days.
Lambda Legal and Rankin took up Hamm's case and filed a complaint against the city and Correction Department. Lambda Legal Senior Attorney Omar Gonzalez-Pagan said Wednesday's settlement "sends a strong message that correction officers are not above the law."
"I will carry the physical scars from the facial fractures forever, but the larger scars of discrimination and anti-gay violence are what I hope to heal—or begin to heal—as a result of this settlement," Hamm said in a statement. "I do not want anyone else to ever suffer this type of abuse at the hands of official New York City personnel, security or staff."
Hamm's experience of violent abuse at Rikers is hardly unique. In 2015, a woman accused guards of undertaking an "extreme full-body cavity search" on her when she visited the prison to see her husband, allegedly because they wanted to see her breast implants. That same year, an inmate won a $450,000 settlement after being hogtied and beaten by prison staff. Also in 2015, two guards faced criminal charges for allegedly plotting the assault of an inmate, and then colluding to cover it up. That's just a smattering of Rikers controversy that cropped up in a single year.
Thanks to the hulking prison complex's problematic history, and the city's apparent inability to reform it, Rikers is now slated to close by 2027.
"For decades, the corruption and abuse at Rikers Island targeting incarcerated LGBT people—most of whom are black and brown—has gone unchecked," said Hamm's lawyer, David B. Rankin, in a statement. "We are hopeful this resolution will make it harder for this kind of discrimination and brutality to continue."