Guards Beat and Waterboarded Prisoners in New York, Lawsuits Say

Two prisoners in upstate New York say they were brutally beaten by guards and taken to a different facility to be waterboarded — a method of torture once used by C.I.A. interrogators on terrorism suspects, according to newly filed lawsuits.

Waterboarding induces the sensation of drowning in victims. The episodes cited in the lawsuits by the men occurred Oct. 7 at Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Comstock, N.Y., more than 200 miles north of New York City.

One man, Charles Wright, 44, was taken to a room and forced to lie face up while shackled to a bed, according to his lawsuit. A guard placed a dirty rag over his nose and mouth and poured water over it for 45 seconds; another guard stood by, the suit says.

The second man, Eugene Taylor, 32, was taken to a room where a guard — apparently the same one that placed a rag over Mr. Wright’s mouth — affixed a cloth around Mr. Taylor’s face and repeatedly dunked his head in water while other guards stood around, according to Mr. Taylor’s suit.

The men had been taken to Great Meadow from Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville, N.Y., where scores of other prisoners were subjected to physical and psychological abuse during a weeklong lockdown and search in early October, according to a separate lawsuit by 44 prisoners.

Corrections officers, including special teams from other prisons, converged on cells, punching and kicking prisoners, slamming their faces against walls and twisting fingers, the lawsuit says, adding that the search was sparked by a prisoner’s assault on a guard.

The lawsuits, filed recently in the State Court of Claims, come almost a year after 26 inmates at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, N.Y., also sued, claiming officers there had orchestrated beatings during a facility-wide search in November 2022.

Bruce Barket, a lawyer whose firm filed the Sing Sing lawsuit a year ago, said then that his firm reported the allegations to the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, which he said was investigating with the F.B.I., which had interviewed several of his firm’s clients. He said the firm was cooperating with the federal investigation.

“Given that the Department of Corrections administration apparently approved of the brutality, no one should be surprised that some guards escalated the abuse,” said Mr. Barket, whose firm also filed the Green Haven and Great Meadow suits.

The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment.

Danielle Muscatello, one of the firm’s attorneys, said that when she interviewed Mr. Wright by phone last fall he didn’t use the term waterboarding but described what had occurred.

“It’s unbelievable that would be happening in our country, let alone New York State,” Ms. Muscatello said.

Thomas Mailey, a spokesman for the State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, which runs the prisons, said the department had not seen the lawsuits and, in any event, “does not comment on possible or pending litigation.”

Although allegations of brutality in New York State prisons are not unusual, the claim of waterboarding is.

Christopher Dunn, legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said his office received many letters from prisoners, which are read and carefully tracked.

“While any atrocity is possible when it comes to New York prisons,” Mr. Dunn said, “we’ve not received reports of waterboarding.”

Matthew Raymond, an Auburn Correctional Facility prisoner, said in a federal lawsuit that he was placed in shackles on a table in 2016, and a lieutenant held his head down by his hair, pulled his shirt over his face and slowly poured water on his nose and mouth. “He felt like he was drowning and could not catch his breath,” the lawsuit says.

The lieutenant denied the allegations and the lawsuit is pending, said Katie Rosenfeld, one of Mr. Raymond’s lawyers.

The waterboarding described by Mr. Wright and Mr. Taylor, who are both serving sentences for second-degree murder, followed a lockdown at Green Haven and the deployment of special teams of officers, according to their lawsuits.

The state has 21 Corrections Emergency Response Teams, known as CERTs, which are based in correctional facilities and are used, among other things, to conduct facility searches.

At Green Haven, Mr. Wright’s lawsuit says, officers went to cells, beating select prisoners. Officers directed Mr. Wright to strip to his underwear and slippers, place his hands behind his head and turn around. After he complied, an officer punched him in the back of his head, causing him to fall to the floor, the suit says. Officers sprayed pepper spray in his mouth and banged his head against the floor and a toilet, according to the lawsuit.

Mr. Wright’s lawsuit does not identify the guard whom he accuses of waterboarding him at Great Meadow, but it describes him as white with a trimmed beard and a mohawk hairstyle — similar to the description Mr. Taylor offers in his suit.

Mr. Taylor recalls in his lawsuit that after being taken to Great Meadow, he saw five or six other prisoners from Green Haven, some of them crying.

Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

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