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How We Investigated Abusive Prison Guards Getting Their Jobs Back in New York

The Marshall Project analyzed 12 years of arbitration cases that involved officers committing abuse or covering it up.

Correctional officers are being blocked on the left side of an illustration. They walk around a corner, removing their uniforms, only to be welcomed back on the right side of the illustration.  Their uniforms are returned to them in the process.

To examine why arbitrators return New York state prison guards to work after officials fired them for abusing prisoners, The Marshall Project built a database compiled through public records requests. We analyzed more than 100 arbitration decisions obtained from the state corrections agency.

Defining abuse

We began our analysis by examining cases that involved misconduct that the department had classified in its disciplinary database as abuse or excessive force against prisoners. Those cases mostly involved allegations of physical abuse of incarcerated people and coverups by front-line security staff, but also included withholding food, setting up one prisoner for a beating by others, or framing them for misconduct, among other allegations.

By reading through arbitration decisions, we found additional cases in which the alleged misconduct matched what the agency had labeled as abuse in other instances. We included those cases in our analysis as well.

Building our database

Using the corrections department’s disciplinary database and arbitration records, we found 136 cases in which officers were fired for abuse-related charges and appealed those decisions to arbitrators between 2010 and 2022.

We wanted to understand the reasons that arbitrators gave officers their jobs back, and the types of evidence they cited. So we requested copies of all 136 arbitration decisions, ultimately receiving 119 from the department. The state withheld 17 reports from The Marshall Project, some without explanation, while others were described as exempt because they contained allegations of sexual abuse. For the abuse cases for which we did not receive reports, we gleaned basic information from the disciplinary database about each case, including the outcome and the arbitrator who made that decision. We included those in our analysis where applicable.

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Analyzing the decisions:

Among the 119 arbitration reports that we received, 88 cases involved guards who were given their jobs back. The reasons cited included:

Of the 119 decisions we considered, arbitrators upheld the firings of the officers in 31 cases. Those decisions relied mostly on evidence that included video, DNA and the testimony from coworkers.

Checking our work

Other reporters and editors in our newsroom read and spot-checked our analysis of the arbitration decisions to vet our classification of those records. Our data editor also evaluated our analysis to ensure it was sound. We took our findings to the corrections department and the prison guards’ union in a series of written questions to get their responses.

Caveats

Some cases are missing from our analysis. The department still owes us a batch of data, and we believe some of those withheld records may also include cases of prisoner abuse.

In addition, the department redacted the names of prisoners and the department’s policy on use of force. In some cases, the department made significant redactions of testimony and evidence. We have protested some of these redactions without success so far.

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Alysia Santo Twitter Email is a staff writer. She has investigated criminal justice issues including for-profit prisoner transportation, the bail industry, victim compensation and the sexual abuse of people behind bars. Her reporting has spurred state and federal investigations, and was awarded Harvard’s Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2021. She is also a three-time finalist for the Livingston Award and was twice named runner-up for the John Jay College/H.F. Guggenheim Prize for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting.

Joseph Neff Twitter Email is a staff writer who has investigated wrongful convictions, prosecutorial and police misconduct, probation, cash bail and forensic ‘science’. He was a Pulitzer finalist and has won the Goldsmith, RFK, MOLLY, SPJ’s Sigma Delta Chi, Gerald Loeb, Michael Kelly and other awards. He previously worked at The News & Observer (Raleigh) and The Associated Press.