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3 guards at Attica face charge of ‘gang assault’ on inmate

Violence occurs almost daily in New York State prisons. But something rare happened after an inmate suffered fractures to his ankles, a shoulder and an eye socket during an August 2011 confrontation inside a cellblock at Attica State Correctional Facility in Wyoming County.

Felony charges of “gang assault” were filed against four men.

The four men were not inmates; they were corrections officers, including a sergeant.

The case is believed to be the first in New York’s history in which gang assault charges were filed against state corrections officers for an alleged attack on an inmate.

The charges have upset many of the 18,000 officers and sergeants who work in the state’s prisons. Their supporters say it is unfair to single out officers for an alleged attack when hundreds of prisoners attack officers every year but most of them are not criminally prosecuted.

The corrections officers were protecting themselves, contends Joel L. Daniels, a co-counsel for the corrections officers.

“Working at Attica is like going to work in a combat zone every day,” Daniels said. “You have to watch your back at all times. Our clients did nothing more than use reasonable force to protect themselves from possible serious injury.”

Criminal charges against one of the four have been dropped, and he has been subpoenaed to testify as a prosecution witness. Jury selection for the three remaining officers – Sgt. Sean Warner and Officers Keith Swack and Matthew Rademacher – is scheduled for March 2 in the Village of Warsaw.

The indictment accuses the three of attacking George Williams, a prisoner from downstate New York. They also are accused of planting false evidence against Williams – a razor blade they said they had seized from him – and the sergeant is charged with putting false information in two reports he filed on the altercation.

Williams suffered serious injuries that required hospital treatment when he was allegedly beaten and thrown down a flight of stairs, authorities say.

When Williams was hurled down the stairs, his hands were cuffed behind his back, and he was unable to walk because of severe, painful injuries to both ankles, prosecutors charge.

Warner, Rademacher and Swack deny any wrongdoing. All three have been suspended without pay since the alleged attack.

Support for ‘Attica 3’

In what could be an ominous development for the three defendants, criminal charges were dropped against Eric Hibsch, the fourth officer originally suspended and charged in the case. Now back on duty, Hibsch has been subpoenaed to testify in the trial.

Edward Sivin, a New York City attorney who represents Williams in a federal civil rights lawsuit, says that his client was then 29 and serving time for grand larceny when he was wrongly blamed for a crude insult that a prisoner had yelled at a corrections officer earlier in the day.

The civil lawsuit alleges that officers escorted Williams out of his cell and then beat him in the area known as the “day room” in Attica’s C Block.

“If he had been the prisoner who yelled out the insult, it would not justify this beating, but at least I would understand where it came from,” Sivin said in an interview.

The officers “punished the wrong guy,” said the civil rights attorney, who has represented prisoners for 30 years. “They guessed at a cell number and guessed wrong.”

In federal court papers, Williams tells State Police investigators that corrections officers came to his cell that day, searched it for contraband and then told him he had to come with them to take a urine test. He alleged that officers escorted him to the day room where they assaulted him “for no reason.”

Williams said he was punched, kicked and hit at least 30 times with a “hard object.” He said he was “crying and in severe pain” when officers lifted him up, cuffed his hands behind his back and told him to walk down a flight of stairs. He said he told the officers he couldn’t walk because he believed both ankles were broken.

He said he landed on his shoulder when he was shoved down the flight of stairs.

“Inmate Williams stated the guards picked him up and pushed his head into a wall, and then cleaned off his face with a dirty wet mop,” a State Police investigator wrote in a report included in the federal court papers.

Another inmate quoted in federal court documents said a corrections officer told him to clean up all the blood in the day room after Williams was injured, and also ordered him to say there was no blood if anyone asked.

Williams was released from prison in January 2012 after serving more than three years for grand larceny, according to state records. His federal lawsuit alleges that he still suffers from his injuries and also has nightmares related to the alleged beating.

“He’s out of prison now and looking for work,” Sivin said of Williams last week.

Supporters of Warner, Swack and Rademacher call them “the Attica 3.”

“Any allegation against any of our members is taken very seriously, and we are confident that once all the facts are released, these officers will be exonerated of all charges,” said Mike Dildine, western regional vice president for the officers association. “Violence against our members inside New York State prisons continues to increase at an alarming rate.”

‘Violent environment’

The union noted that the number of inmate assaults on staff increased from 577 in 2010 to 747 in 2014, despite a decline of 4,000 inmates during that same time period.

“The bottom line,” Dildine added, “is that corrections officers are working in an increasingly violent environment, and they are getting attacked by violent criminals on a daily basis.”

While assaults by prisoners against prison staffers have increased by nearly 30 percent over four years, the majority of those assaults are never prosecuted as crimes, the officers association said.

Attorneys for the three also note the hardships facing the corrections officers.

“Being a correctional officer is difficult enough. They put themselves in harm’s way every day. Now officers and their families have to worry that just by protecting themselves they could face felony charges,” said Cheryl Meyers Buth, an Orchard Park attorney who represents the officers with Daniels and Norman P. Effman.

In a state prison system where violent confrontations occur every day, why would Wyoming County prosecutors choose this case to prosecute officers for a gang assault?

Under state criminal law, a gang assault does not require the presence of a “gang,” as it is referred to in everyday conversation, said First Assistant District Attorney Vincent A. Hemming.

Under the law, the criminal charge refers to an assault in which at least three people join forces to attack a victim “with intent to cause serious physical injury.”

“What everyone needs to remember … is that this is a trial of three individuals and not an indictment on the noble profession of corrections officer,” said Hemming, who is prosecuting the case against the three corrections officers.

1st indictment rejected

When asked why the case is being prosecuted with a felony charge so rarely used against New York corrections officers, Hemming said that question will be answered by evidence presented at trial.

He noted that two separate grand juries have looked at the incident and that both decided to indict on the gang assault charge. The first grand jury voted to indict Warner, Rademacher, Swack and Hibsch in December 2011, about three months after the incident.

In August 2012, after ruling that grand jurors heard some evidence they should not have received, Wyoming County Judge Michael F. Griffith dismissed the indictment, but allowed prosecutors to present it to a new grand jury.

The second grand jury handed up new indictments in January 2013, but this time, Hibsch – who testified before the grand jury – was not charged.

Warner, 39; Rademacher, 31; and Swack, 39, are all charged with felony gang assault. All also are charged with felony tampering with physical evidence, a charge that refers to allegedly planting the razor blade as evidence, and a misdemeanor count of official misconduct.

Two additional felony charges of offering a false instrument are filed against Warner, the sergeant, who is accused of filing two false reports on the incident with his superiors. The three men have all pleaded not guilty.

The case will be tried in Warsaw before County Judge Michael M. Mohun.

Attica trial at a glance

Jury selection begins March 2 in Warsaw for sergeant and two corrections officers from state prison in Attica:

• Prisoner says he was taken from cell in 2011, brutally beaten “for no reason” and thrown down stairs with hands cuffed behind his back.

• The case is believed to be the first in New York State history charging corrections officers with felony “gang assault” against an inmate.

• Two grand juries viewed evidence, both returned indictments, but a fourth officer was not charged in the second indictment.

• Defense attorneys say officers worked in dangerous environment and were protecting themselves.

• Union for correctional officers says prisoner assaults on state corrections workers rose by almost 30 percent between 2010 and 2014.