A former Rikers Island inmate is suing the city and the Legal Aid Society, saying that he was jailed for over four months without anybody telling him that his bail had been set at a dollar.
Aitabdellah Salem was arrested in November 2014 for allegedly stealing a coat from a Zara store, injuring a police officer, and possessing burglary tools. Facing charges of assault and petit larceny, he was arraigned in two separate cases, and initially had his bail set at $25,000 for each case. Within days, however, a judge reduced his bail for one case to $1. Judges often set bail at $1 for defendants facing multiple cases so that they get credit towards time served if they are later convicted.
When a grand jury failed to convene within a week in the other case, another judge ordered Salem released.
From late November till the following April, Salem sat. Court appearances came and went, and according to his suit, his three Legal Aid attorneys repeatedly appeared in court without him, and each time failed to notify him that only a dollar stood between him and freedom. Rikers guards, too, failed to inform him of his bail status, even as he repeatedly asked them for information, Salem alleges. He suffers from schizophrenia, according to the court filing.
Salem was released only when a jail chaplain whom he had never met paid his bail.
The lawyers' and jailers' approach "amounts to deliberate indifference to the Plaintiff’s Constitutional rights," Salem's lawyer, Welton Wisham, wrote in the complaint. Wisham notes in the filing that in 2016 the City Council introduced legislation that would require jail guards to determine whether an inmate has pending court appearances soon after their arrival, and produce them for such appearances, as they are already required to. The bill was meant to address a recurring problem with the Department of Correction failing to bring defendants to their court dates. Mayor de Blasio signed it into law in December.
"There may just well be others," in Salem's situation, Wisham told the New York Post.
More than half of the people awaiting trial on Rikers are there because they can't afford bail.
Salem pleaded guilty to assault and petit larceny in July 2016 in connection with the 2014 arrest, and was sentenced to five years in prison, a Manhattan District Attorney's Office spokesman said. Salem is currently serving his term in medium-security lockup in western New York, according to state records. A related case is sealed.
A Legal Aid spokeswoman declined to comment. A Law Department spokesman said the agency is reviewing the complaint.
Department of Correction spokesman Peter Thorne wrote in an email, “We have zero tolerance for the mistreatment of any inmate, and we take such claims seriously. The vast majority of our officers carry out their duties with care and integrity."
He declined to comment further, citing the ongoing litigation.