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Lambda Legal Joins Federal Lawsuit After Antigay Attack at Rikers Island

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October 29, 2015
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Thomas Hamm and P.F.

Lambda Legal has filed an amended complaint in a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on behalf of Thomas Hamm against the City of New York and New York City Department of Correction (DOC) officers and supervisors after a brutal attack on Mr. Hamm while he visited his partner, P.F., at a men’s facility on Rikers Island.

Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, Staff Attorney at Lambda Legal, said:

Something is terribly wrong when rampant abuse and discrimination are the hallmarks of our criminal justice system. Law enforcement and corrections officers cannot disregard the rights of those they encounter, nor can they flagrantly abuse their position. Prison officers are not above the law, and people do not forfeit their right not to be brutally attacked when they pass through the gates of a prison, no matter if they are incarcerated or visiting, or LGBT or not. The City of New York and the Department of Correction are responsible for making sure that prisons are safe, that the rights of those incarcerated are being protected, and that their families can visit them without fear. The abuse and discrimination by the Rikers corrections officers is just the latest manifestation of a generations’ old culture of violence by Department of Correction officials especially targeting incarcerated LGBT people—most of whom are Black and Latino—and their families for humiliation and harassment. There are thousands of incarcerated members of the LGBT community who are vulnerable to systemic, pervasive harassment and violence. Prison officials don’t get to harass and discriminate against people just because they don’t like who they are.

On May 9, 2014, Thomas Hamm, a gay man, went to visit his long-time partner, P.F., at a DOC correctional facility on Rikers Island, where P.F. was serving a sentence. When Mr. Hamm greeted P.F. with a hug and a kiss, they were ordered by corrections officers to stop embracing, even though other visitors around them were allowed to embrace.

The DOC Directive on Inmate Visit Procedures states that “inmates and visitors are permitted to kiss, embrace and hold hands.” The harassment continued when Mr. Hamm and P.F. held hands on the table, like many others around them, as they were speaking. Corrections officers called Mr. Hamm and P.F. “faggots” and ordered them to stop holding hands, then -abruptly ended the visit.

As Mr. Hamm was preparing to leave the facility, one of the corrections officers who had been harassing the couple said to Mr. Hamm, in sum and substance, “Fucking homosexual, who the fuck do you think you are?” and “You’ll burn in hell.”

As Mr. Hamm tried to go, the corrections officers grabbed him and viciously beat him, repeatedly punching and kicking him. As his head bled profusely, Mr. Hamm begged the officers to stop. Finally, Mr. Hamm was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where he was shackled to his bed overnight and diagnosed with facial fractures and head trauma.

After his discharge from the hospital, corrections officers took Mr. Hamm back to Rikers, where he was given an order banning him from visiting the facility for 180 days. Consistent with the notorious violence and cover-ups by corrections officers and officials at Rikers, the perpetrators claimed that the 5’6” Mr. Hamm had tried to strike an officer, and omitted reporting the violence against him. Adding further insult to brutal injury, Mr. Hamm was falsely charged with assault in the third degree and harassment in the second degree. The charges were adjourned in contemplation of dismissal.

David B. Rankin, a partner at Rankin & Taylor PLLC and Lambda Legal’s co-counsel in the case, said:

Rikers Island is known for its terrible abuses of people in DOC custody. It is a shame Mr. Hamm was not even safe as a visitor. It is our hope that this lawsuit will make it impossible for this kind of discrimination and brutality to continue.

Mr. Hamm said

I went to Rikers to visit my loved one, and left beaten, my face shattered, in shackles, and charged with a crime I did not commit. The corrections officers’ anti-gay hate crime against me was covered up. Something is very rotten at Rikers; no one else should have to suffer the abuses that the City has allowed to run rampant.

The lawsuit asserts that the City of New York and its Department of Correction officers violated the U.S. Constitution’s First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as the Constitution and laws of New York, including the New York Human Rights Law, by singling out the couple with discriminatory treatment at the visitor’s center and the subsequent violent attack that left Mr. Hamm severely injured.

Read the press release.