The City of New York and Department of Correction will shell out $280,000 to settle a discrimination lawsuit filed by a man who was attacked by correction officers while visiting his partner at Rikers Island.
Thomas Hamm’s nightmare began on May 9, 2014, when he went to Rikers Island to visit his longtime partner, who was not identified. When the couple kissed and hugged hello, Hamm said correction officers in the room told them to stop, despite that other visitors and inmates were embracing around them and that the DOC’s visitor protocols allow for kissing, hugging and hand-holding.
But the harassment didn’t stop there, Hamm said. After the couple sat down and were holding hands across a table, one DOC officer hurled an anti-gay slur at them and ordered them to stop holding hands.
When Hamm was getting ready to leave Rikers, he said one of the correction officers who had been bothering the couple verbally harassed him before he was set upon by a group of officers who beat him. He was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where he was treated for facial fractures and head trauma.
“They beat me quite severely that day. 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. “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. As a New Yorker, I stand up for everyone in the hopes that this will not happen again.”
To add insult to literal injury, Hamm said he was shackled to his hospital bed overnight and charged later with assault and harassment after the correction officers alleged he had tried to strike an officer during the attack. The charges were later dismissed.
The correction officers also omitted the beating and hospitalization from their official report of the incident, Hamm said. His attorneys suggested the officers’ actions are consistent with other reported violent altercations and cover-ups by DOC staff at Rikers.
Hamm filed the lawsuit in 2015 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, alleging violations to his civil rights under the U.S. and state constitutions.
“We have no tolerance for discriminatory behavior or harassment based on sexual orientation, religion, gender, race, or any other category,” DOC press secretary Jason Kersten said after the settlement. “The vast majority of our officers comport themselves with professionalism and respect for everyone, and they are trained to do so.”
Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, senior attorney with Lambda Legal, which represented Hamm, said the settlement sends a “strong message” that DOC officers are “not above the law.”
“No one — not an inmate or a visitor — forfeits the right to safety when passing through the gates of a jail or prison,” Gonzalez-Pagan said. “The attack on Thomas Hamm, a private citizen, was unlawful and brutal and the cause was anti-gay violence and discrimination.”
In addition to the restitution money, the settlement requires the city to state on the record that its policy at all Department of Correction facilities is to treat visitors equally. The DOC also will instruct all officers at Rikers Island on its nondiscrimination policy for visitors.