Victory! NYC Government & Department of Correction Pays Victim of Antigay Attack $280K

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September 12, 2018
Thomas Hamm, left, and his partner P.F.

Lambda Legal client Thomas Hamm, brutally attacked while he visited his incarcerated partner at a men’s facility on Rikers Island, was awarded $280,000 in the resolution of a federal lawsuit against the City of New York and New York City Department of Correction, its officers and supervisors.

In addition to monetary damages, the lawsuit settlement includes a nondiscrimination statement on the record and instructions to Rikers Island officers on the policy for visitors.

"I went to visit my partner but ended up being harassed and assaulted in the visitors’ room by correction officers at Rikers because I am gay. 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. 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,” Mr. Hamm said.

"Today’s settlement sends a strong message that correction officers are not above the law.  No one – not an incarcerated person or a visitor – forfeits the right to safety when passing through the gates of a jail or prison.  The attack on Thomas Hamm, a private citizen, was unlawful and brutal and the cause was anti-gay violence and discrimination,” said Lambda Legal Senior Attorney Omar Gonzalez-Pagan.

He continued, “For far too long, violence, discrimination and abuse of power have been the rule at Rikers Island. New York City’s Department of Correction has continuously failed to protect the safety and well-being of those in its care, whether they are incarcerated or visiting. We are pleased to have achieved this modicum of justice for Mr. Hamm.”

“Visits to incarcerated people from their loved ones should be encouraged as research shows how important connection to family and friends is for ensuring people successful re-entry into society after release from custody. Who those loved ones are should not interfere with this right. Department of Correction officials do not get to harass and discriminate against people visiting the prison for any reason, including sexual orientation or gender identity,” Lambda Legal Staff Attorney and Criminal Justice and Police Misconduct Strategist Richard Saenz stated.

“For decades, the corruption and abuse at Rikers Island targeting incarcerated LGBT people—most of whom are black and brown—has gone unchecked. We are hopeful this resolution will make it harder for this kind of discrimination and brutality to continue,” said David B. Rankin, Beldock Levine & Hoffman LLP Partner and Lambda Legal’s Co-Counsel in the case.

The terms of the settlement include a statement on the record from New York City that their policy is to treat all visitors to DOC facilities equally regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity, instructions for DOC officers at Rikers Island on the nondiscrimination policy for visitors, and a payment of $280,000 to Mr. Hamm.

Case background:

On May 9, 2014, a gay man and New York City citizen, Thomas Hamm, went to visit his partner of many years at Rikers Island. When Mr. Hamm greeted his partner with a hug and a kiss, the couple were ordered by correction officers to stop embracing, even though other visitors around them were allowed to embrace.

The Department of Correction “Directive on Inmate Visit Procedures” states that “inmates and visitors are permitted to kiss, embrace and hold hands.” The harassment by Department of Correction staff continued when the couple held hands at the table where they were visiting, like many other couples around them were also doing.

The correction officers on duty called Mr. Hamm and his partner “faggots” and ordered them to stop holding hands. The officers on duty then abruptly ordered the end of the visit.

As Mr. Hamm was preparing to leave the facility, one of the correction 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 correction 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, Department of Correction officers took Mr. Hamm back to Rikers, where he was given an order banning him from visiting the facility for 180 days.

Consistent with other reports of notorious violence and cover-ups by correction officers and officials at Rikers, the perpetrators claimed that the 5’6” Mr. Hamm tried to strike an officer during the initial incident.

They also omitted to report the violence enacted on him that required hospitalization. Adding further insult to brutal injury, Mr. Hamm was falsely charged with third-degree assault and second-degree harassment. The charges were dismissed.

Today’s settlement is based on an October 2015 complaint brought against both the City of New York and its Department of Correction officers.

The complaint, filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, alleged the denial and violation of Mr. Hamm’s federal civil rights under the Constitution’s First, Fourth and 14th Amendments, as well as his New York State civil rights, including the New York Human Rights Law, when the correction officers on duty at the Riker’s Visitors Center singled him out among all other visitors that day for discriminatory treatment.

That treatment subsequently led to a vicious attack that left Mr. Hamm severely injured.

Lambda Legal Senior Attorney Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, Lambda Legal Staff Attorney and Criminal Justice and Police Misconduct Strategist Richard Saenz and Beldock Levine & Hoffman LLP Partner David B. Rankin served as counsel to Mr. Hamm on the case and its settlement.