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No Jail Time for Attica Guards

Brutal beating resolved with a misdemeanor plea.

From left, Sgt. Sean Warner, Officer Keith Swack and Officer Matthew Rademacher.

From left, Sgt. Sean Warner, Officer Keith Swack and Officer Matthew Rademacher.

WARSAW, N.Y. — Three guards accused of beating an inmate at the Attica Correctional Facility so severely that doctors had to insert a plate and six pins into his leg, each pleaded guilty here on Monday to a single misdemeanor charge of misconduct. The last-minute plea deal spared them any jail time in exchange for quitting their jobs.

Related Read our story about the beating of George Williams and the culture at Attica prison.

This story was produced in collaboration with The New York Times.

The resolution of the case came more than three years after corrections officers beat a 29-year-old inmate, George Williams. He suffered two broken legs, broken ribs, a broken shoulder and a severe fracture of his eye socket, among other injuries.

“Let me be clear: This has never been about jail for these officers, even though they came dangerously close to that idea,” the Wyoming County district attorney, Donald O’Geen, said hours after the three guards were to have gone on trial on charges of gang assault, filing false reports and evidence tampering. Under the agreement, the officers can never again work in a New York State correctional institution.

“This prosecution has always been about holding these officers accountable for their abuse of power and to, once and for all, get them out of the corrections profession,” O’Geen added. He also said that Williams had “approved of the settlement” and “was overcome with emotion” upon being told of it by telephone on Monday.

But in a telephone interview from his home in New Jersey, where he had been preparing to travel to Warsaw to testify, Williams sounded more equivocal, calling the plea agreement “crazy.”

“But that means they understood what they did was wrong,” he said. He added with apparent sarcasm: “I want to wish them a nice life. I’ll send them a postcard.”

Williams, who said he still had trauma from the beating on Aug. 11, 2011, has also filed a civil rights lawsuit against the three guards and another officer seeking damages in Federal District Court in Buffalo.

The prosecution was the first time any New York State corrections officers had been criminally charged with a nonsexual assault of an inmate, officials said. The three defendants would have faced a minimum of five years’ imprisonment if convicted.

Instead, the three guards — Sgt. Sean Warner, 39, and Officers Keith Swack, 39, and Matthew Rademacher, 31 — each received a one-year conditional discharge after pleading guilty to a single charge of official misconduct. They will be allowed to keep their pensions, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said.

The prosecutors dropped assault and other charges against a fourth officer, Eric Hibsch, after giving him immunity in exchange for his testifying before a grand jury in 2013.

Williams’s case was the most recent episode of inmate and officer violence to achieve notoriety at an institution that became a symbol of prison dysfunction after an inmate rebellion there in 1971 that resulted in 43 deaths.

Norman Effman, one of the defense lawyers, said the three other officers agreed to resign from their jobs as part of the plea deal. Justice Michael M. Mohun accepted the agreement in State Supreme Court after dismissing the unusually large pool of prospective jurors who had been summoned for the case.

In a statement, lawyers for the three men said, “This outcome allows us to avoid a felony conviction and put this case behind us.”

Williams was completing a prison sentence of two to four years for robbing two Manhattan jewelry stores when he was beaten. He was removed from his cell by three guards for what he was told was a urine test for drugs and was taken into a darkened day room used for inmate classes and meetings. The attack came shortly after an unknown inmate had cursed at a guard who was delivering mail in one of the vast cell blocks of the 2,240-inmate prison.

Once inside the day room, Williams said, he was kicked and beaten with fists and batons. Inmates in nearby cells later described a vicious beating, with one telling investigators he saw Williams receive at least 50 kicks and a dozen baton strikes. Inmates two floors below reported they heard Williams pleading for his life.

A former inmate, Charles Bisesi, 67, said that when he saw Williams dragged out of the day room, he appeared to be wearing a red shirt. Only then did Bisesi realize that Williams was drenched in blood.

Inmates also told the investigators that if the guards had been looking to punish whoever had shouted the curses, they had picked the wrong man.

Unlike in other episodes of brutality alleged by Attica inmates, Williams’s injuries were not hidden.. When officers carried him to the solitary unit, the sergeant on duty ordered him to the infirmary. There, a nurse insisted that he be taken to an outside hospital. Doctors at Erie County Medical Center operated on Williams that night, inserting a plate and six screws in one of his legs.

At Attica, an investigation began, and the state corrections commissioner at the time, Brian Fischer, referred the case to the State Police.

“This case, and its results, should be seen as the agency’s willingness to respond effectively to acts of misconduct on the part of staff,” Fischer said after learning of the guilty pleas. “Prisons must be safe for both inmates and staff alike.”

The acting state corrections commissioner, Anthony J. Annucci, said in a statement that the guards’ “criminal actions and this type of behavior have absolutely no place within the department.” Annucci said he would seek “substantial changes” in contract talks with unions representing state corrections officers to “appropriately discipline any security staff who commit egregious acts of misconduct.”

Prosecutors initially offered the agreement to spare the officers jail time more than two years ago. But as recently as several weeks ago, Justice Mohun had warned the defendants that the deal would no longer be available after January.

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Nonetheless, lawyers for the guards said they reconsidered their strategy late last week and reached a deal late on Sunday afternoon, after The Marshall Project and The New York Times published a lengthy investigative report on the case. Getting the prosecutors to restore the earlier plea offer, Effman said, “was part of the negotiation.”

A lawyer for Officer Swack, Joel L. Daniels, confirmed that his client had been delivering mail on C Block that night, but said any inmate cursing was coincidental.

“Profanity goes with the territory,” Daniels said. “That had nothing to do with this. Williams was a guy they believed was holding weapons.”

He said the altercation erupted as Williams was being frisked in the day room in preparation for the urine test. “He was told to put his hands on the wall and he resisted,” he said.

Instances of inmates violently erupting while being frisked by guards armed with heavy batons regularly appear in reports filed by guards at Attica, a recent review of cases there found.

Guards typically report that they are compelled to use force to quell rebellious prisoners who lash out against them, even though several officers are nearby. Records obtained by the Correctional Association of New York, an organization that monitors state prisons, show that inmates accused in such cases are invariably convicted and sent to solitary confinement.

Of 228 cases of alleged inmate assaults on staff members at Attica between 2010 and 2013, only one inmate was not convicted of all charges.

Inmates claim that such accounts are often a fiction invoked by a small number of officers who engage in unchecked brutality. The only reason Williams’s case turned out differently, they said in interviews in recent months, was the decision by other prison employees to intervene and by administrators to press the investigation.

The Correctional Association’s executive director, Soffiyah Elijah, called the settlement “historic,” but expressed disappointment that it did not result in a more serious sentence.

“I can assure you that if Williams was charged with doing to someone else what these guards were charged with doing to him, leniency would never have been considered,” she said.

James Conway, a former superintendent at Attica who retired in 2009, welcomed the verdict in the case. “We do have some rogue corrections officers and, when possible, we try to weed them out,” Conway said. “There is a right way to do our business, and a wrong way.”

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