New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

WILLIAMS v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2006-041-507, Claim No. 108088


Claim is dismissed where inmate fails to prove that razor assault perpetrated by fellow inmate was reasonably foreseeable based upon an alleged “month long cutting spree” at the correctional facility.

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:
Rahsaan WilliamsPro Se
Defendant’s attorney:
Eliot Spitzer, New York State Attorney GeneralBy: Michael C. Rizzo, Esq., Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
November 22, 2006

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


Claimant Rahsaan Williams, while an inmate at Clinton Correctional Facility on September 10, 2002, was slashed on the side of his face and neck by another inmate wielding a razor. Although some question was raised at trial whether claimant was an innocent victim in the incident or the aggressor who, in the course of the altercation, incurred injury, there is no dispute he was injured and suffered cuts to his facial area.

Claimant seeks a variety of damages, which will not here be detailed, alleging the defendant negligently supervised the facility's population, negligently provided for his care and safety and further, that defendant failed to appropriately respond to a "month long cutting spree" prior to September 10th by ordering a facility lockdown to search for and find contraband (i.e. weapons/self-fashioned razors), all of which caused him to be attacked and injured.

On September 10, 2002, while exiting his company at approximately 8:00 a.m. for breakfast, claimant alleges that while walking past inmate Coston's cell, C-3-6, inmate Coston slashed him with a razor on the right side of his face. He further claims inmate Coston grabbed him, twice pulling him into Coston's open cell, where he was again cut. Claimant suffered lacerations near his cheek and neck.

Correction Officer Scott Ashline, on duty in C Block at the time, was on the company at a control post, separated from the inmates, behind gates. He had unobstructed visual observation of the company and observed claimant "jumping" into and out of inmate Coston's cell, and, hearing a commotion, activated the closing of Coston's cell door, causing claimant to quickly exit the cell before he became locked inside with Coston.

Correction Officer Ashline testified seeing claimant entering and exiting Coston's cell but saw nothing of what went on inside the cell. He did not see claimant being pulled into the cell and he did not see claimant being cut. His post was forty feet from Coston's cell. Correction Officer Ashline was the only officer on that floor of C Block. He, at the time of the incident, immediately called for help, which arrived in less than a minute.

Upon cross-examination, claimant reported having no prior altercations with inmate Coston, making no prior request to be kept separate from him, making no prior complaint about Coston and making no prior report to facility officials that he feared for his safety in any way.

"Having assumed physical custody of inmates, who cannot protect and defend themselves in the same way as those at liberty can, the State owes a duty of care to safeguard inmates, even from attacks by fellow inmates" (Sanchez v State of New York, 99 NY2d 247, 252 [2002]). "This duty, however, is limited to providing reasonable care to protect inmates from risks of harm that defendant knew or should have known were foreseeable" (Di Donato v State of New York, 25 AD3d 944 [3d Dept 2006]). "The State . . . is not an insurer of inmate safety, and negligence cannot be inferred solely from the happening of an incident" (Colon v State of New York, 209 AD2d 842, 843 [3d Dept 1994]).

In determining whether the State provided reasonable care to protect an inmate from assault the court may consider whether the claimant had previous known encounters with his assailant or had listed his assailant on an "enemies list with the institution" (Elnandes v State of New York, 11 AD3d 828, 829 [3d Dept 2004]). The court may also consider whether the assailant was "a known dangerous prisoner" (Auger v State of New York, 263 AD2d 929, 930 [3d Dept 1999]; see Wilson v State of New York, 36 AD2d 559 [3d Dept 1971]). Further, the court may consider whether "claimant was a known assault risk" (Stanley v State of New York, 239 AD2d 700, 701 [3d Dept 1997]).

The State's potential liability for negligent supervision with respect to an inmate-on-inmate assault is not limited, however, to situations in which actual notice of a particular claimant's vulnerability or a particular assailant's violent propensities can be shown. The State is also charged with the duty of protecting an inmate from reasonably foreseeable risks of harm based upon "what the State reasonably should have known--for example, from its knowledge of risks to a class of inmates based on the institution's expertise or prior experience, or from its own policies and practices designed to address such risks" (Sanchez, 99 NY2d at 254).

Among claimant's theories of defendant's negligence is that having Correction Officer Ashline alone responsible for the 40 cell, C-3 company the morning of September 10, 2002, and behind a locked gate, defendant's duties to adequately supervise the population and to adequately provide for his safety were breached, causing him to be injured. Claimant suggests regulations found at 9 NYCRR 7003.2, subdivisions (c) (3), (c) (4) and (d) (1) and 9 NYCRR 7003.3 (a), requiring "active" and "constant" supervision, were breached by reason of Correction Officer Ashline's solitary presence. The Court's review of the cited regulations find no such breach attributable to the supervisory level provided on C Block by defendant on the morning of September 10, 2002.

One obligation of defendant thought violated by claimant, to "immediately respond," was met both by the level and style of supervision provided and by the fact that help responded within a minute of the altercation, when called for by Correction Officer Ashline.

Moreover, even were the Court to have found the level of supervision provided that day in violation of the cited regulations, more officers, or more immediately accessible supervision, or supervision inarguably in compliance with the regulations would have done nothing to prevent the type of attack described, one that was sudden, unprovoked, unanticipated and of opportunity. The fact that a correction officer is not present at the exact time and place of an assault does not arise to an inference of negligence absent a showing that facility officials "failed to use adequate supervision to prevent that which was reasonably foreseeable" (Colon v State of New York, 209 AD2d 842, 843 [3d Dept 1994]; Padgett v State of New York, 163 AD2d 914 [4th Dept 1990], lv denied 76 NY2d 711 [1990]).

There was no history of violence or antipathy between the combatants, no prior request made or concern expressed by the claimant to be kept separate from inmate Coston and claimant never expressed any concern for his well being prior to the incident. As such, the defendant had no knowledge, nor could it have reasonably foreseen, that inmate Coston was a danger to claimant.

Claimant advanced another theory of defendant's negligent supervision, claiming that defendant's failure to order a lockdown in the facility to search for contraband, in the aftermath of a "month-long cutting spree," prior to September 10th, proximately caused the attack and injuries.

In the weeks leading up to claimant's attack, there were several instances of inmate-on-inmate assaults involving cutting or stabbing at Clinton Correctional Facility. Introduced into evidence as claimant's Exhibit 4 were twenty Unusual Incident Reports, detailing such assaults at the facility in the five weeks prior to September 10, 2002. Most of the reports involved the use of a weapon of some sort. Some of the weapons were found, some not.

The defendant called Lieutenant Stephen Lacy as a witness. Lieutenant Lacy is a safety/security lieutenant at Clinton Correctional Facility, having so served since 1998. Lieutenant Lacy explained the use of lockdowns, identifying different types. He explained an emergency lockdown, lasting minutes to an hour, could be used to respond to a specific incident or an incident of unknown origin and that it is used to secure inmates in their then location while officials determine the nature of an ongoing incident. He also described two types of "scheduled facility" lockdowns. One type would be for a "routine frisking," which seeks to discover contraband, generally conducted after a lengthy period of time has elapsed since the last such search. A second type of scheduled facility lockdown would be in response to a "large incident" or a "series of related incidents."

All "scheduled facility" lockdowns require the facility's superintendent to request and receive an Assistant Commissioner of Corrections approval. The lockdowns last three to four days, during which time inmates are locked in their cells, searches for contraband are made and inmate interviews are conducted. They are highly disruptive of prison operations and life. Lieutenant Lacy described their frequency at Clinton Correctional Facility as roughly once a year, but stated that he had seen twenty-four months pass without one. He further testified that such lockdowns, in and of themselves, present problems and security challenges. Inmate morale suffers and inmate resentment for the additional confinement and inconvenience grows, creating higher tensions within the facility. "Innocent" inmates feel they are being unfairly punished.

Upon cross-examination, Lieutenant Lacy testified that a "cutting spree" wouldn't necessarily result in a lockdown. When a series of incidents occur, an investigation is undertaken and the nature and circumstances underlying the incidents are carefully evaluated before any decision to seek a lockdown is made. If a series of assaults is determined to be related, such as gang activity seeking to control drug trade, a lockdown would be considered and likely requested. However, if a series of one-on-one inmate assaults, even if of a like kind and nature (cutting, slashing, or stabbing), are determined to have arisen for various or unrelated reasons, such as extortion, enforcement of a drug debt or involving a dispute over a sporting event, other remedial, less intrusive steps to address the assaults would be undertaken in lieu of a lockdown. Lieutenant Lacy's testimony clearly conveyed that employing a lockdown is but one of a variety of responsive measures defendant has at its disposal in evaluating and responding to a series of inmate assaults.

Lieutenant Lacy repeatedly stressed assault incidents and their underlying reasons are thoroughly investigated and evaluated, and a variety of responsive measures, lockdowns included, are carefully considered. These considerations would include the possibility of security problems arising by reason of the lockdown itself.

Claimant is not an expert in prison security. Lieutenant Lacy, by profession, is responsible for the safety and security of inmates at Clinton Correctional Facility. It is his responsibility to evaluate problems and threats which arise there and to counsel the facility's superintendent. These duties include the evaluation and implementation of responsive measures to those problems and threats. He, the superintendent, and by extension, the defendant must be given the discretion to make such evaluations and determinations.

Whether or not to order a lockdown resides within the superintendent's discretion to "provide for such measures as he may deem necessary or appropriate for the safety, security and control of correctional facilities" (see Correction Law § 137[2] and § 18[2]; see Shabazz v Portuondo, 260 AD2d 733 [3d Dept 1999], lv denied 94 NY2d 756). In general, courts should defer to prison authorities in matters of internal prison security (Blake v Selsky, 10 AD3d 774, 775 [3d Dept 2004]).

As the court explained in Arteaga v State of New York (72 NY2d 212, 218-219 [1988]):
"Because of the problems of maintaining security and discipline within correctional facilities, the discretion delegated to the employees and officers is necessarily comprehensive and calls for the exercise of judgment under widely varying conditions. What, if any, disciplinary action to take in a given situation is a matter requiring consideration of broad policies and general objectives in the application of the governing rules and regulations to the particular circumstances."
Moreover, even were the Court to have found that the defendant should have ordered a lockdown prior to September 10, 2002, claimant has failed, utterly, as no proof was presented on the point, to demonstrate that such action would have necessarily deprived inmate Coston of the ability to retain his razor or that it would have prevented him from acquiring or fashioning another one after the lockdown. In short, claimant has failed to show that inaction on the part of the defendant was the proximate cause of his injuries.

The claimant has failed to demonstrate by a preponderance of the credible evidence that the defendant, in failing to order a lockdown, in the weeks leading to September 10, 2002, breached its duty to claimant to supervise the inmate population at Clinton Correctional Facility, generally, or its duty to him to reasonably foresee the specific risk of harm which befell him, and further failed to prove that any such failure proximately caused his injuries.

All motions not previously decided are hereby denied. The claim is dismissed. Let judgment be entered accordingly.

November 22, 2006
Albany, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims