Stories

No escape

Hundreds of Rikers Island inmates are in solitary confinement, under conditions that can cause serious psychological deterioration. Rasaun Bullock's torments during 49 months in the hole cost him his right to a speedy trial.

In his Bronx courtroom, Judge William Mogulescu stores case files in standard-issue gray cabinets, each drawer labeled with the year the cases within it originated. The oldest, “2008,” is nearly empty, with the exception of a bursting and battered legal-size folder.

Inside sit the traces of a court case that has stretched on for more than four years, through at least a dozen motions, four lawyers, five judges and nearly 50 court dates. That does not include the four civil rights suits filed in federal court by the defendant, who entered the court system on a misdemeanor domestic violence charge. 

This file encompasses the harrowing story of Rasaun Bullock, a now 39-year-old man from the Bronx who spent more than four years incarcerated on Rikers Island. He endured at least 49 months of those in solitary confinement.

An excerpt from one of the four federal civil rights complaints Rasaun Bullock filed in federal court during his four-year stay in solitary confinement at Rikers.

“I have been locked in a room 24-7 for 2008 to present (today is 2011),” Bullock wrote in one of his civil rights complaints. “DOC yells at me & say they say you crazy- and that makes me sad & mad upset (very sad & upset).”

The astonishing length of Bullock’s incarceration and legal proceedings has gained him notoriety in this Bronx courtroom. So has his relentlessness in pursuing justice. “In all the years I’ve been on the bench, he is the only defendant that got my chambers’ number and was able to call my chambers,” said Judge Mogulescu, who has presided over the case since September 2011. “I have no clue how he got it.”

The judge declined to comment further because Bullock’s case will most likely enter an appeal process.

Bullock is among many defendants at Rikers who have stayed behind bars for years while their criminal trials grind forward. Like hundreds of other inmates at any given time, he was kept in solitary confinement, under conditions that mental health research has found can cause serious psychological deterioration. In Bullock’s case, his torments made it difficult, if not impossible, for him to get a speedy trial.

Even as the city’s jail population has declined, the average number of days inmates spend in jail is steadily increasing. In 2009, the average length of stay was 45 days; in 2012 it was 61 days, a 35 percent increase.

While the reasons behind them are complex, delays in the court system are playing a significant role. Between 2000 and 2011 the number of felony cases pending in the city’s courts for longer than 180 days doubled even though new felony cases decreased by 22 percent in the same period. The trend is especially acute in the Bronx, where 71 percent of felony cases in Supreme Court take longer than six months to conclude.

Those delays, in turn, are fueled by an increase in the share of pretrial defendants who exhibit some form of mental illness — a broad category that includes various types and severity, from inmates suffering an “adjustment reaction” to confinement, to depression to schizophrenia. This group now comprises more than a third of the city’s jail population and remains incarcerated on average for nearly three times as long as other inmates.

Criminal justice officials are aware that part of the solution to Rikers’ mental health crisis must come from the court system. In December 2011, a task force convened by the mayor announced a new program to move defendants with mental illness into treatment programs instead of jail where warranted.

But Department of Correction Commissioner Dora Schriro has said that these Court Based Intervention and Resource Teams may reduce the pretrial population at Rikers Island by 300. That is just 7 percent of the mentally ill population at Rikers on any given day.

Among those who remain behind bars on the island, many will be subjected to the Department of Correction’s system of solitary confinement, either the 1,000 bed Central Punitive Segregation Unit or the Mental Health Assessment Unit for Infracted Inmates. Inmates in these units are typically on lockdown for 23 hours a day.

“These people are incapable of conforming their conduct to the law. The more stringent behavioral restrictions, the more trouble they get into faster,” said John Boston of the Prisoner’s Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society. “All around the country, jails are realizing that this is a vicious circle, to deal with mental health people in a punitive fashion.”

At Rikers Island, however, punitive segregation has expanded. The main unit has grown by 44 percent in recent years, according to the Legal Aid Society, while the mental health solitary unit has doubled to 200 capacity. These were the two blocks where Bullock spent the four most recent years of his life.

 

‘If I knew someone who went through this, I would think they would have issues’

Bullock is of medium height with closely shorn hair often covered in a black do-rag that he removes when in a restaurant or a courtroom. These days, he walks tenderly with the support of a cane and speaks so softly at times that a listener has to lean in closely to catch his words. Since his release from Rikers Island in January, he has been transient and struggles to articulate his thoughts and feelings about the time he spent in solitary confinement.

“If I knew someone who went through this, I would think they would have issues,” said Bullock. “What was happening to me in there, I didn’t know how it was going to affect me when I got out. I don’t deal with being sad or being happy. That don’t help me.”

His real troubles began not with the misdemeanor domestic violence charge that landed him in jail in August 2008, but several months later, while he was incarcerated at Rikers Island’s George R. Vierno Center. That November, the Department of Correction accused him of assaulting a corrections officer. According to a grand jury indictment, Bullock attacked an officer entering his cell with two pieces of sharpened plastic Plexiglas shards, stabbing the officer in his right forearm and causing a laceration that required three stitches. Bullock was charged with five felonies and four misdemeanors, including promoting prison contraband.

In Bullock’s version of the November 15 incident, he was beaten, raped and restrained by corrections officers.

A spokesperson for the Department of Correction said in response to questions regarding Bullock’s incarceration and treatment: “DOC investigates all allegations of staff misconduct and takes appropriate actions when justified.”

In the incident, Bullock sustained injuries that put him in a wheelchair. (An internal investigation by the city Department of Correction found the tactics used by its officers were appropriate.) Eventually, when doctors decided Bullock no longer needed the wheelchair, he insisted that he still needed it.

“That’s what started everything,” said Kafahni Nkrumah, an attorney assigned to Bullock’s case as a public defender in 2009. Bullock fired him after a year and a half, as he eventually did all of his lawyers.

Bullock could not afford his $10,000 bail, and he refused to plead guilty to the charges against him. But appearing in court for the trial proceedings proved nearly impossible because of the standoff between Bullock and the Department of Correction over the wheelchair. According to court documents, the department reported that Bullock was “malingering and refusing to come to court.” Bullock meanwhile, claimed the DOC officers refused to bring him to court and were instead starving, gang raping, torturing and denying him legal and family visits.

In one of four complaints Bullock filed with the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York in 2011 and 2012, his accusations are written by hand in small script, filling some 200 pages and naming around 70 defendants including “All the Judges on my Cases,” “Every Lawyer on my Cases,” Every DW Warden I’ve Written or Spoken to In Person” and “Bellevue Hospital.”

In the summer of 2011, he wrote: “I have been denied, court for over 25 months-the D-O-C tells people I denie court-& medical attention & family visits & legal visits & family contact & legal contact et cetera threw the mail or phone is denied me at times because I report all continued criminal (corrupt) activities such as Rape-assault-theft-forgery-et cetera.”

He wrote that he was seeking compensation of “$100 per second for being forced to endure constant torture from 1000sands of DOC personal in 8 hour intervals 3x a day” because of “all the times i tried to kill my self & contemplated suicide.” Repeatedly, he asks to be let out of solitary confinement. “Get me off Rikers and into a Hospital. i am very sick-please help me.”

Bullock’s view of his mental health is difficult to untangle. He says that he is unaware of any formal mental health diagnosis made before or during his time at Rikers, and that he does not take any medication except for pain stemming from the injuries to his back. He views the attention of his lawyers and the court on his mental health as a strategy to cast doubt on his allegations against the Department of Correction.

“The C.O.s told the Dr.’s they didn’t do what they did to me and that I was crazy. You’ll see the COs use that all the time they beat someone up,” wrote Bullock in 2011.

As he put it to me recently about the question of mental illness: “That’s what they say when they cover things up.”

Nkrumah, who has worked as a criminal defense attorney in the Bronx for 15 years, said Bullock’s case stands out for the particularly painful frustration of trying to defend someone who he viewed as “manic” and requiring psychological care, but was nonetheless viewed as ready to stand trial by the courts.

“The test keeps coming back competent, but you know he’s not really processing what’s going on,” he said. Bullock, meanwhile, claimed the psychiatric tests ordered by his various lawyers were a conspiracy to get him to take a plea deal.

Bullock’s continued incarceration in solitary confinement hurt his mental state, according to Nkrumah. “Despite what [the Department of Correction] want to tell you about solitary confinement and its effects on people, it’s vicious and does nothing but deteriorate people’s mental capacity,” he said. “When you have a mental disability and go into the criminal justice system, it’s double hell because these people do not know how or are trained to deal with people who have mental disabilities.”

Because he refused to plead guilty to a crime he said he did not commit, and was not produced in court, Bullock’s case dragged on for months, and then years. Out of some 50 assigned court dates, Bullock appeared in court just a handful of times. In November 2012, Judge Mogulescu arranged for Bullock to appear in court via video stream, and he explained to Bullock that in order to get to court for trial proceedings to begin, he must allow corrections officers to strip search him.

“It has to be done. That’s the rule,” said the judge.

“You can’t make me show them my privates,” pleaded Bullock. “I could get a ticket for that!”

“I will have your lawyer present from start to finish so he will be sure they won’t harm you,” said the judge.

“I wish everyone would pay attention,” said Bullock quietly.

After the video conference finished, the judge conversed with Bullock’s court-assigned defense attorney and an assistant district attorney. “The Corrections physician says he doesn’t need a wheelchair. He has a real problem,” said Judge Mogulescu. “The only way we can get him into Hudson [Psychiatric Facility] is if he doesn’t pass a [psychiatric exam]. But he’s going to pass.”

 

Tunnel vision

In 2012, a student at City University of New York Law School, Luke Schram, met Bullock at Rikers Island as part of his advocacy work with inmates in solitary. “The first time I visited him, it was the first time he’d seen someone in two years, and he was pretty severely affected by the solitary confinement,” said Schram. “His mind was just crushed, he couldn’t carry on a conversation.” Schram said he felt he recognized the kind of “brain atrophy” described by psychiatrists who study the effects of prolonged isolation on individuals, including prisoners.

One of them is Dr. Stuart Grassian, a noted Harvard Medical School psychiatrist who has studied solitary confinement for more than 25 years. As far back as 1983, Grassian identified a specific psychiatric syndrome associated with extended periods of isolation that includes a kind of mental “fog” as well as a hypersensitivity to stimuli; perceptual distortions, illusions, and hallucinations; panic attacks; intrusive, obsessive thoughts; problems with impulse control; and overt paranoia.

“The inability to shift attention results in a kind of ‘tunnel vision’ in which the individual’s attention becomes stuck — almost always on something intensely unpleasant — and in which he cannot stop thinking about that matter; instead, he becomes obsessively fixated upon it,” reported Grassian in a 2006 journal article. Even if an individual does not suffer from mental illness before being isolated, he or she is just as likely as those previously diagnosed to experience a “degree of stupor, difficulties with thinking and concentration, obsessional thinking, agitation, irritability and difficulty tolerating external stimuli.”

Grassian has found that these symptoms do not subside just because an individual is eventually removed from isolation. Instead, they continue to manifest in handicaps like an intolerance of social interaction.

Despite Bullock’s difficulties carrying on a conversation with him, Schram found his resolution to take his case to trial and be acquitted of the charges against him remarkable. “His sense of justice is one of the only things he has,” said Schram of Bullock’s refusal to take a plea that would have released him from jail.

But by last November, all four of Bullock’s civil rights complaints, which he filed without the assistance of a lawyer, had been dismissed by a judge because his allegations did not meet the requirement of being “simple, concise, and direct” and “failed to allege what any Defendant did or failed to do that violated his rights.”

He had in all likelihood served a longer sentence than if he had been convicted of the charges against him, and much more time than if he had accepted an earlier plea bargain. Bullock seemed desperate to get out of jail, saying that the beatings by corrections officers were relentless. He asked Judge Mogulescu to release him on his own recognizance or set a bail less than the $10,000 so that he could be released. The judge said he would not but that if Bullock pled guilty to assault in the second degree, he would sentence him to time served and Bullock could appeal the case. On January 9, Bullock pled guilty to assault in the second degree and was released from jail — 1,616 days after he went in.

Bullock’s days now are spent mostly in his old neighborhood in the Bronx, running into people he knows from the street and a few family members. The best part of being out of jail is being around people again, he said.

But Bullock is vague and reticent to speak specifically about his experience in jail or what it is like to be out. When I asked him about his mental state he texted: “Before: Mostly content. During: Torture. After: Very worried.”

One day I asked him why he was so prolific in his written court testimony and so quiet in person. “I’m not good at people asking me questions,” he explained. “I’m sure tired of all of this. I get fed up a lot quicker than I use to. I find myself being like, ‘Forget it,’ a lot.” And yet Bullock seems to preserve a sense of faith in the system’s ability to eventually reveal the truth of what he claims was his abuse inside the criminal justice system. “I know the system works,” he explains. “You have to give it time to work.”