The menu for Thanksgiving 2015 dinner at the Brooklyn House of Detention featured relatively standard fare, except for one item—-carrot cake tainted with rat poison.
That’s according to a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York on Feb. 23. Sixteen inmates have brought the complaint against the City of New York, Correction Department Commissioner Joseph Ponte and several Corrections Department officers, among others.
Prison lawsuits aren’t as common as they once were. A 2015 study from the UC Irvine Law Review on the consequences of the 1996 Prisoner Litigation Reform Act, or PLRA, concludes that the law has hampered prisoner litigation nationally in the years since its passage.
The law review notes that there was a jump in prisoner civil rights litigation in the 1970s, along with a sharp increase in incarcerations. However, the study, entitled “Trends in Prisoner Litigation, as the PLRA Enters Adulthood,” shows a severely reduced rate of litigation from 1970 to 2012, with national lawsuit filing rates among inmates shrinking by nearly 60%, to 10.5 lawsuits filed per 1,000 prisoners from 24.6.
The American Civil Liberties Union has criticized the PLRA on four counts. The ACLU has assailed its Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies section, meaning that prisoners must go through all legal avenues presented to them by the prison system before filing a federal lawsuit. The organizations also finds fault with the PLRA’s unwaivable filing fees, as well as a Three Strikes provision that says that each lawsuit that an inmate files that a judge declares “frivolous, malicious, or does not state a proper claim” counts as a “strike.” And after three strikes, one can’t file another lawsuit unless he pays the filing fee upfront in full. The ACLU also criticizes the PLRA’s requirement that inmates must sustain physical injury to be able to file a lawsuit.
“In short, in cases brought by prisoners, the government defendants are winning more cases pretrial, settling fewer matters, and going to trial less often,” wrote the study’s author, Margo Schlanger, the Henry M. Butzel Professor of Law at the University of Michigan. “Litigation has receded as an oversight method in American corrections.”
New York, however, was an exception to that rule. According to the study, the filing rate for prisoner lawsuits in the state hit 19.4 per 1,000 lawsuits in 2011, up from 17.9 in 1995.
The rat poison lawsuit has fulfilled a few PLRA requirements already, with a $400 filing fee having been paid and inmates having suffered physical harm
The plaintiffs allege in the complaint that several inmates grew ill after eating carrot cake that corrections officers knowingly served to them. The complaint introduces a slew of grievances, including that corrections officers subjected the inmates to cruel and unusual punishment, assault, battery and harassment, as well as “negligent, intentional, careless and reckless conduct.”
Court papers also note that after inmates grew sick and tried calling 311 and 911, corrections officers attempted to dispel evidence of the poisoned cake before the Department of Investigation arrived to assess the situation. For some inmates, the food poisoning was so severe that they needed CAT scans, stomach pumping and trips to local emergency rooms.
Plaintiffs are seeking damages of $1 million each.
”When you’re dealing with inmates, in particular, you’re dealing with a segment of the population that has very little to no representation,” says Greg Zenon, the attorney representing the inmates, in a phone interview. “You’re dealing with an enclosed segment that has very little contact with the outside world. They have very few rights because of their situation, and guards sometimes abuse them.”
The New York Times last year ran a deep-dive investigative series on the abuses and subsequent lawsuits at Riker’s Island. Included was the case of Kevin Bazilio, who claims that officials at Riker’s refused to move him when he told them he had a separation order against a fellow inmate, a gang member, who later gave Bazilio spoiled food and attacked him, according to the complaint.
“Unfortunately, there is somewhat of a history within the New York City Department of Corrections,” says Zenon. “I know it’s not the first time that the guards have allowed a type of abuse to occur.”
As for the carrot cake lawsuit, New York City has yet to respond. The Department of Correction did not return a request for comment.
Zenon anticipates that the case will only gain steam as time goes on.
“As this case goes forward, there’s going to be continued interest in it,” he asserts. “If I were the city, I would settle this case as quick as possible.”