behind bars

Prison Payout Little Solace After 22 Months in Solitary

Kenneth Samuels, who received a $200,000 settlement after spending more than 22 months in solitary confinement.
Kenneth Samuels, who received a $200,000 settlement after spending more than 22 months in solitary confinement. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Kenneth Samuels couldn’t believe it when he was sentenced to 2½ years in solitary confinement for an alleged assault on a trio of prison guards.

The officers, he contended, hit him in the head with their fists and batons after a verbal dispute over shower time inside Sing Sing Correctional Facility on Nov. 16, 2010.

The Bronx man spent nearly every waking moment of what turned out to be his nearly 23 months of solitary punishment researching how to file and argue a federal lawsuit to prove he was the real victim — not the officers who said he attacked them.

Earlier this month, Samuels went to his lawyer’s office in midtown Manhattan to pick up his share of a $200,000 settlement made by the state prison system in response to that legal case.

“I’ve got a permanent headache and will likely have to spend a portion of the money on medication,” Samuels, 44, told THE CITY.

As with almost all of its legal payouts, the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision did not admit any wrongdoing.

But it’s a case Samuels and his legal team say highlights how long solitary sentences can be doled out to prisoners with little due process.

In 2018, the average length of the solitary punishment was 105 days, and dozens of prisoners have been in isolation for years, according to a new report by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

All told, 99% of those punished with solitary confinement were men. Some 57% were black and 24% were Latino, the data shows.

There were 2,345 people in New York State prison solitary units and 408 in so-called keeplock in their own cells as of Oct. 1, according to the Department of Corrections.

No Witness Testimony

Samuels was convicted in 1996 of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life.

Authorities say he fatally shot Leslie Green inside a Morris Heights bodega on Oct. 6, 1994. Samuels, who was 19 when the shooting occurred, maintains his innocence, contending he was at a pool hall at the time of the killing.

He’d been in prison for 14 years when he faced his disciplinary hearing.

Sing Sing Correctional Facility officials documented injuries sustained by Kenneth Samuels in 2010 after he contends he was attacked by three prison guards. The guards said he attacked them.
Sing Sing Correctional Facility officials documented injuries sustained by Kenneth Samuels in 2010 after he contends he was attacked by three prison guards. The guards said he attacked them. Photo: Department of Corrections and Community Supervision

A hearing officer tossed Samuels in solitary for 30 months in a tribunal devoid of any witness testimony, state prison records show.

Samuels said he asked his designated representative, a randomly selected prison officer, to question dozens of prisoners who may have seen what occurred. That never happened, according to the hearing transcript.

At one point, the hearing officer asked one of the guards to describe how he was “viciously assaulted” by Samuels, the transcript shows.

The hearing officer found Samuels guilty of engaging in violent conduct, creating a disturbance, assaulting staff, refusing a direct order and being out of place.

“When (the hearing officer) told me 30 months I said, ‘Are you serious?’” Samuels recalled.

Almost Locked Out of Justice

While in solitary, Samuels filed a separate legal case arguing that he was never given a chance to defend himself at the department hearing. He spent 22 months in near-total isolation before an appeals panel ruled in his favor.

The judgment ordered prison officials to immediately release him back into the general population and to expunge the case from his record.

Still, Samuels says, he was forced to stay in solitary for an additional 21 days after the decision before he was freed.

His federal lawsuit almost never got moving: Officers watching him in solitary refused to allow him to file an internal grievance against the staff involved in the alleged beat down, Samuels said. Judges typically push people to pursue all internal avenues before taking up a legal case.

Samuels said he passed his internal grievance through a crack in the top of his cell to another prisoner, who was able to get the case filed.

“I slipped him a magazine with the (grievance) letter inside,” Samuels recalled.

Moonlighting at Yankee Stadium

His federal lawsuit also brought to light irregularities with multiple workers’ compensation claims filed by the officers involved, court records show.

One of the officers, Ronald Woody, obtained that benefit due to injuries he supposedly crushed his left hand on a breaker switch on Aug. 14, 2012. But he was later found the same night moonlighting at Yankee Stadium for $150, according to the inspector general at the state Office of Workers’ Compensation.

Woody pleaded guilty to “attempted fraudulent practice,” a misdemeanor, and was sentenced to three years’ probation and agreed to pay $8,754 in restitution. He was also fired by the state Department of Corrections.

“The Department has zero tolerance for illegal actions in its facilities,” said Thomas Mailey, a department spokesperson. “Anyone found to have committed a crime inside a DOCCS facility will be held accountable and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Another officer involved in the Samuels’ altercation said he obtained workers’ compensation for that case, and three other times, for injuries he sustained. In one case, he failed to remember the date or basic details about the injury, according to a deposition obtained by THE CITY.

Samuels and his attorney, Katie Rosenfeld, charge Woody’s abuse is not an isolated incident.

“We see the same pattern over and over again: our clients such as Mr. Samuels are brutally assaulted by officers in a jail or prison, but afterwards, the responsible officers file frivolous workers’ compensation claims for injuries they allegedly sustained, often to their hands and fingers from punching a prisoner,” she said.

A Corrections Department spokesperson said statistics regarding how many staffers obtained workers’ compensation for on-the-job injuries over the past five years were not immediately available.

‘I’m a Little Bit Nervous’

In his lawyer’s office, Samuels, who was paroled earlier this month, said he was still getting used to all the new technology that’s popped up since his conviction. He worried that a cell phone camera was live broadcasting to other people.

He’s also trying to get in touch with his son, who was a tot when he was imprisoned. The two exchanged letters for years but Samuels says that stopped when he got put into solitary.

Kenneth Samuels recalled his 22-plus months time in solitary confinement during a recent interview in his lawyer's office.
Kenneth Samuels recalled his 22-plus months time in solitary confinement during a recent interview in his lawyer’s office. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“I was telling him to behave and walk the straight line and the next thing you know I’m in the box,” Samuels said.

Rosenfeld — who took on Samuels’ legal case several years after he filed it on his own — has asked him to join her on panel at the Practising Law Institute to discuss prison litigation.

“I’m a little bit nervous,” Samuels said. “I just want to be prepared for the questions they ask me.”

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