Prisoner Richard Pattiasina was handing out spoons to fellow inmates in the mess hall at Elmira Correctional Facility eight years ago, when a correction officer ordered him to open the kitchen’s front door.
“One second,” Pattiasina responded, according to testimony he provided in a federal lawsuit he filed in 2012.
The officer, Timothy Sewalt, became enraged, calling him “a little a-hole bread man.” He ordered the inmate, who was serving a 31/2-year sentence for selling drugs, into a kitchen corridor, out of view of security cameras.
There, Pattiasina was surrounded by three other jailers while Sewalt frisked him and violently tossed him to the ground.
Sewalt then kicked him in the groin with such force that it broke his right testicle, according to the lawsuit.
The inmate was placed in solitary confinement, where he spent seven excruciating days having his pleas for medical assistance ignored, before he was finally taken to a hospital and treated for three days.
Last year, the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision quietly agreed to pay Pattiasina — now 38 and out of prison — $ 800,000. The payout was the top settlement or judgment the department doled out to a single inmate over the past two years, records show.
Sewalt, who began his career in 2000, remains on active duty. The Department of Corrections declined to say if he was disciplined for his role in the incident, citing a state law that bars public disclosure of police personnel records.
The case was extreme, but far from unique. The department has issued payouts to 127 aggrieved inmates and former prison staffers totaling approximately $ 7 million over the past 2½ years, according to records obtained from the state attorney general’s office through the Freedom of Information Law.
That figure is on the rise. The department made at least $ 8.8 million in payouts from 2010 until 2015, the data reveals.
As was the case with Pattiasina, many of the alleged officer beatdowns occurred in secluded areas away from video camera coverage, records show.
Officials say the ballooning payouts do not point to a trend of rampant abuse by officers in a system consisting of some 50,622 prisoners housed in 54 prisons.
Inmates file lawsuits alleging mistreatment by officers — which can include anything from broken bones to the misuse of solitary confinement.
Some of those cases can take years to wind their way through the court system before they are settled or brought to trial, and that may be what happened in recent years, officials note.
The increase is also due in part to a comprehensive agreement to curb the use of solitary confinement in prisons, the result of a class action lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Richard Pattiasina suffered a groin injury in the incident, according to his testimony. He is seen on the Columbia University campus in Manhattan on Oct. 26.
As part of that deal, the state agreed to pay $ 1.1 million to cover the NYCLU attorney fees in 2015, court records show.
Equally as important as the cost and number of payouts is the matter of discipline — and the potential removal — of the prison officers involved in abuse cases.
Critics say the state rarely forwards the cases for criminal prosecution, and the offending officers frequently remain on the job.
“These guys don’t just get disciplined; (instead) they get promotions and raises,” said attorney Joan Magoolaghan, who represented Pattiasina. “It’s an absolute outrage.”
A Corrections Department spokesman said that officers who are repeatedly named in lawsuits are flagged for review.
“The agency reviews settlements and jury awards for purposes of reevaluating its systems, policies and procedures for reforms,” the spokesman said.
The state says it is taking a more aggressive approach to punishing bad officers; a beefed-up internal investigations unit has been increased to 200 staffers over the past year, up from 160.
“When (the Corrections Department) is made aware of allegations through either staff or inmate reports, an internal investigation is immediately conducted by the department’s Office of Special Investigation,” a department spokesman said.
“If the allegations are substantiated, (the department) takes appropriate disciplinary action in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement, up to and including seeking termination.”
The number of substantiated cases of abuse the state says it has “referred for consideration by outside prosecution” has more than tripled over the past two years.
The number has already reached 273 in 2017, far higher than the 83 referrals logged in 2016, department records show, though it is unclear how many of those abuse cases will ultimately be prosecuted.
Pattiasina’s case was not forwarded for criminal prosecution, the Department of Corrections says, because there was a “lack of sufficient evidence.”
Sewalt did not respond to a request for comment.
With Stephen Rex Brown