New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

MILLER v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2001-013-513, Claim No. 97074


The State is liable to a prison inmate who was stabbed in his cell by another inmate. Evidence established that the assailant was to be kept away from other inmates, that it was possible to override or "jam" the cell locks so that they could be opened after they appeared to be closed, and that the officer who was in charge of assuring that prisoners were locked in their cells was informed about this gap in safety procedures.

Case Information

Claimant short name:
Footnote (claimant name) :

Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Claimant's attorney:
Defendant's attorney:
Attorney General of the State of New York
BY: GREGORY P. MILLER, ESQ.Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
December 12, 2001

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


On July 30, 1997, at Wende Correctional Facility (Wende), where Claimant was within the general population, his cell door was opened so that he could attend a gym call out. Once the door was open, and before Claimant had an opportunity to leave, another inmate named Holley, who was on keeplock status, ran into the cell and stabbed Claimant with a weapon similar to an ice pick. Claimant was stabbed in the chest and in the back. He was immediately taken to the infirmary and then, by ambulance, to an outside hospital where surgery was performed the same day, apparently to stop internal bleeding. Claimant recalled being in the hospital for three to four days and then in the Wende infirmary for approximately a month. He does not claim permanent injuries, other than the scar and some interference with normal bowel movements which he attributes to the operation.

Claimant attempted to establish that when an inmate in keeplock, such as Inmate Holley, is allowed to leave his cell, there are to be no other inmates in the corridors or in accessible cells.[1]
Holley had just returned to his cell, apparently from getting medication, immediately before Claimant's door was open. Claimant testified that no officer accompanied Holley to his cell to make sure that he was securely locked in. He stated that the officer in charge, Officer Gibson, remained at the lockbox (which contains the mechanism for opening cells) until the attack started, when he went to Claimant's assistance and ultimately struck Holley with his night stick to get him to stop the attack.
Claimant stated that prior to this event he "never had two words" with Inmate Holley, that Holley was "crazy" and kept to himself. His only prior awareness of this inmate occurred the week before this incident when, according to Claimant, other inmates said that Holley had "cut" someone in the recreation yard.

Correction Officer Dion L. Gibson testified that when inmates in keeplock have to leave their cells to get medication or for any other purposes, facility procedure calls for the floor to be "secured," i.e., to make sure that all other inmates are in their cells so that no general population inmates come into contact with the keeplocked individual. There is no requirement or regular policy of escorting these inmates back to their cells, unless they are returning from being on another floor.

On the day in question, Gibson visually observed Holley go into his cell and observed the lockbox indicator, a lever, rise up indicating that the cell was locked. Certain that Holley was then securely in his cell, he opened the door to Claimant's cell. Almost immediately he saw Holley going into Claimant's cell, at which point Gibson intervened, subduing Holley and returning him to his cell while tending to Claimant.

Gibson testified that it was not feasible for every cell door to be physically checked every time the block was secured, although during the day he would periodically make rounds and check individual cells. When asked about his prior experience, Gibson testified that during the eight years he had worked within the prison system, he had been at Wyoming and Oneida Correctional Facilities (both medium security, with dorm settings) and Sing Sing Correctional Facility. Upon questioning, Gibson acknowledged that the cell doors at Wende could sometimes be "jammed." The inmates could cover the locks with a towel or some other object, putting it on both sides of the locking mechanism, and then close the cell. When the door closed over this object, it raised the lockbox lever and made it appear that the door was locked. The inmate can then yank on the towel or other object and the locks will open. There were no cells at the medium security facilities where Gibson had worked, and the locking system at Sing Sing was totally different from the one at Wende. He had been at Wende approximately four months when Claimant was injured and no one had informed him about this "jamming" phenomenon until after the incident. After this incident, he was told about this phenomenon by inmates and other officers.

The state is required to use reasonable care to protect the inmates of its correctional facilities from foreseeable risk of harm (
Flaherty v State of New York, 296 NY 342), including the foreseeable risk of attack by other inmates (Dizak v State of New York, 124 AD2d 329; Sebastiano v State of New York, 112 AD2d 562). The State is not, however, an insurer of the safety of its inmates (Padgett v State of New York, 163 AD2d 914, lv denied 76 NY2d 711; Casella v State of New York, 121 AD2d 495), and negligence will not be inferred from the mere happening of an incident (Mochen v State of New York, 57 AD2d 719; Van Barneveld v State of New York, 35 AD2d 900). The standard of care is that of reasonable supervision (see, Castiglione v State of New York, 25 AD2d 895), and factors to be considered include whether there was a history of animosity between a claimant and his attacker, of which the State was or should have been aware (see, Hull v State of New York, 105 AD2d 961; Wilson v State of New York, 36 AD2d 559; Hann v State of New York, 137 Misc 2d 605, 608-609) and whether correction officials had an opportunity to intervene in a way that would have prevented assault but failed to do so (Huertas v State of New York, 84 AD2d 650).
In the instant claim, the State was not on notice of any particular need to protect Claimant from Inmate Holley and, indeed, Claimant himself was not aware of any animosity that would have led to his assault. The attack could have been prevented, however, if Inmate Holley had been safely locked into his cell before Claimant's cell door was opened. C. O. Gibson followed all of the safety procedures that he had been instructed to follow. While he would not speculate on how Holley was able to get out of an apparently locked cell, he had to acknowledge that the cell locking mechanism worked adequately when he put Holley behind it after breaking up the fight. It is difficult to find any other explanation for Holley's ability to leave his cell and attack Claimant other than that he "jammed" the lock when he was first locked in.

Officer Gibson had not been informed that the locks could be "jammed," making the criteria he used -- visually observing the inmate inside the cell and observing the indicator lever to show that the cell door was locked -- virtually meaningless. Even if this phenomenon occurs only rarely, a single officer on duty in a cell block should be made aware of it so that he could take proper precautions. If Gibson had known that the checks he used were not sufficient to absolutely assure that an inmate was locked in his cell, it is likely that he would have taken some further steps -- perhaps visually checking out the locking mechanism to see if towels or other objects protruded, or physically testing the door -- to make sure that the keeplocked individual was securely in his cell. This is particularly true if, as Claimant testified, Inmate Holley had been involved in an assault a week earlier and that he acted strangely at most times. Where such an inmate is required to be kept separate from others -- i.e., where it is foreseeable that he will harm others -- and where it is known that the locks can be overridden so that the mere visual observation of the inmate and the indicator lever are not enough to fully confirm that he is safely in his cell, it is negligence to fail to alert Officer Gibson to this danger. If he had known of this danger, I am convinced that the officer would have taken whatever steps were necessary to assure that Inmate Holley was securely locked away before allowing other cells to be opened. While prison officials cannot be expected to prevent all harm within the walls of a prison, an institution that is by definition filled with lawbreakers, it is reasonable to expect that they can keep prison doors locked when they are intended to be locked.

Fortunately, it does not appear that Claimant has suffered any permanent injuries, other than scarring from this attack. There is no logical or medically established connection between the attack or the subsequent operation and Claimant's continuing complaints of constipation. The pain that he had to endure, both during the attack and through his hospitalization and recovery, was significant, however. I conclude that $2,250.00 provides reasonable compensation for his injuries in this instance.

All motions not heretofore ruled upon are now denied.


December 12, 2001
Rochester, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

  1. [1]Claimant submitted as Exhibit 2, which was marked for identification only, a note from the facility Law Library purportedly quoting a paragraph from Wende's Operations Manual relating to "Showers" in support of his contention that whenever inmates in keeplock are let out of their cells, no other inmates should be in the corridor and that they are to be observed at all times. Counsel for Defendant was asked to provide an official copy of any such directive, but in light of subsequent testimony from Correction Officer Gibson confirming that this was the policy, such confirmation was not needed.