New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

BLAKE v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2001-016-218, Claim No. 99695


Synopsis


Pro se inmate claimant was awarded damages for attack through cell "feed-up hatch" by another inmate.

Case Information

UID:
2001-016-218
Claimant(s):
WILLIAM BLAKE, JR.
Claimant short name:
BLAKE
Footnote (claimant name) :

Defendant(s):
THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
99695
Motion number(s):
Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
Alan C. Marin
Claimant's attorney:
William Blake, Jr.
Defendant's attorney:
Eliot Spitzer, Attorney GeneralBy: Joseph Romani, AAG
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
January 16, 2002
City:
New York
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)



Decision
This is the claim of William Blake, Jr. in which he alleges that because of defendant's negligence, he was assaulted by another inmate at Sullivan Correctional Facility. Specifically, Blake alleges that while he was being escorted to the showers in the Special Housing Unit ("SHU") on November 13, 1998, the other inmate reached through a "feed-up hatch" in his cell and cut claimant's neck with a sharp object. The claim was tried at Sullivan, where claimant testified on his own behalf, and defendant called correction officers David Boyce and Kenneth Sanok.

Blake testified that on the day in question, he left his cell to go take a shower. He was escorted by two correction officers and as they proceeded toward the showers, they approached the cell of an inmate named Ruffin, whose cell, Blake stated, had a plexiglass shield which covered the entire cell front except for the feed-up hatch. Blake explained that the purpose of the shield was so that nothing could be extended or thrown out of the cell bars. Blake recalled that the plexiglass had been on Ruffin's cell for some time because Ruffin had attempted to assault correction officers in the past. Claimant testified that as he neared Ruffin's cell, he heard a "boom" -- which was Ruffin's feed-up hatch being shoved open -- and he was then struck on his neck with a sharp instrument.

Feed-up hatches are hinged openings on the cell fronts that were once used to pass inmates their meals. They are no longer used for that purpose as meals are now served from steel doors in the back of the cells with similar openings. The front feed-up hatches are currently used to pass inmates cleaning supplies. Blake maintained that Ruffin's front feed-up hatch had been left open by an officer because only officers have access to the locking mechanism, which is on the outside of the cell. According to Blake, the front hatches are never to be left open except when an officer is passing something through.

Blake contended that had the hatch been locked, the attack would not have occurred. On cross-examination, he conceded that on occasion inmates stuff paper or cardboard inside the hatch to keep it from locking, but he noted that the officer would find out instantly if he checked. After claimant was assaulted, correction officer Boyce struck Ruffin's arm and slammed the feed-up hatch shut. He then arranged for claimant to go to the medical clinic where he was treated for the wound on his neck, which Blake described as 4" long and "bleeding not a lot." No stitches were needed as it was not a deep cut. Blake also asserted that his arm was "bruis[ed] up pretty bad," although there is no reference to an arm injury in his medical records. See claimant's exhibit 1. He said that his arm hurt for about a week and his neck for a couple of weeks. As to scarring, a slight scar is visible on Blake's neck – near an unrelated scar also on his neck.
* * *
Correction officer David Boyce testified that he was on duty at Sullivan on November 13, 1998 during the 3:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. shift. He recalled that he was one of the officers who escorted Blake to the showers in the SHU. At the time of the incident, he and the other officer were walking shoulder to shoulder, 2 ½ to 3 feet behind Blake, who was walking against the cell fronts. He testified that as they passed inmate Ruffin's cell, Ruffin forced open his feed-up hatch, extended his arm out and cut Blake's neck. Boyce testified that as soon as Ruffin extended his arm, he struck it with his baton to stop the assault and closed the hatch. He then continued to escort Blake to the shower, where Blake showed him a cut on his neck. Boyce recalled that the cut was not bleeding a great deal and was "superficial." Boyce did not recall observing any injuries to Blake's arm. Blake was then taken to the infirmary, treated by a nurse and returned to his cell.

Boyce testified that on November 13, 1998, there was no cell shield on Ruffin's cell. He recalled that Ruffin had assaulted three officers while in SHU, but could not recall whether this was before or after the incident with Blake.

As to the feed-up hatches, he testified that the locking mechanism has a spring and if the hatch is slammed it catches. He confirmed that the only way a hatch is opened is from the outside with a key and an inmate is not supposed to be able to open a hatch from the inside. Asked if he'd ever had occasion to see an inmate open such a hatch, he referred to the incident with Ruffin as the only time. He conceded that for an inmate to get his arm out through the feed-up hatch, it "would have to be open . . ." He also conceded that it is SHU policy that feed-up hatches be locked at all times except when being used.

As to the corridor, he described it as four feet wide: "wide enough for two people to walk shoulder to shoulder . . ." He confirmed that the policy was for the inmates to walk by the cell doors, which was so that officers can observe the cell doors as they're walking by.
* * *
Officer Kenneth Sanok testified that he was employed at Sullivan and was working in the SHU on November 13, 1998. He apparently did not witness the incident with Blake, but became aware of it at some point.

He did not recall any problems between Ruffin and Blake prior to the incident, nor did he he recall if Ruffin's cell had a plexiglass shield at the time of the incident, although he thought one might have been put in after the incident with Blake.

As to the feed-up hatches, Sanok had never seen an inmate jam the lock to keep a hatch from closing properly, but he said he had heard of it. He conceded that if it a hatch were plugged up, an officer would know instantly that it had not caught because "[i]t should fall right open" upon an officer checking. He also said that while some hatches close easily, others need quite a bit of force to close.
* * *
It is well settled that while the State is not an insurer, it does, "[i]n its operation of the correctional system . . .[have] a duty to provide inmates with reasonable protection against foreseeable risks of attack by other prisoners . . ."
Sebastiano v State of New York, 112 AD2d 562, 564, 491 NYS2d 499, 501 (3d Dept 1985).
In this case, correction officer Boyce confirmed that it was SHU policy that feed-up hatches be locked at all times except when in use. It is undisputed that Ruffin's feed-up hatch could not have been locked at the time he assaulted Blake. While there was some speculation that Ruffin could have jammed something in the hatch to make it appear locked, the testimony was that had that been the case, an officer pulling on the hatch to check that it was locked would have readily discovered that it was not in fact locked. In
Sebastiano, supra, the Third Department found that the state could be liable in a situation where defendant failed to follow its customary practice by keeping all cellblock gates open until the feeding of inmates was completed and where locking the gates was delayed after feeding.
In view of the foregoing, I find that defendant is liable in negligence for the attack on Blake. As to Blake's injuries, as set forth above, the cut was superficial, did not require stitches and did not cause pain for more than a couple weeks. The scar, located by another scar, was minor and unobtrusive. As to an alleged arm injury, such does not appear in the medical records, not did Boyce recall it. I find that claimant was damaged in the amount of $500.00. Accordingly, William Blake is awarded the sum of five hundred dollars ($500).

LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.

January 16, 2002
New York, New York

HON. ALAN C. MARIN
Judge of the Court of Claims