A security video recently obtained by The New York Times reveals prison guards physically abusing an unresponsive inmate in front of medical staff. Although the guards appear responsible for causing his death, none face criminal charges for assault, manslaughter, or negligence.
At 9:30 a.m. on October 3, 2010, guards at Clinton Correctional Facility began recording a video capturing the final minutes of inmate Leonard Strickland’s life. The video begins with Strickland facing a corner of the room with two guards taking off his handcuffs. With his shirt ripped and his back visibly bruised, Strickland places his hands on the wall to keep himself from collapsing.
Leonard Strickland in 2009
Although a report from the New York State Commission of Correction found that Strickland seemed to be unable to support his own weight, Officer Terry James claimed Strickland was violently pushing against the wall when they placed him back in handcuffs. As Strickland fell to the floor, the guards continued to shout, “Stop resisting!”
Instead of lifting Strickland onto a nearby gurney, officers Kevin Trombley and James picked him up by his handcuffed arms, hyper-extending them over his head, and dragged him across the floor to the elevator. For two minutes, Strickland was left lying facedown on the ground as guards stepped over his motionless body. Nearly 10 minutes into the video, someone finally asked, “Is he breathing?”
Nurses and officers spent the next 35 minutes attempting to resuscitate Strickland. According to doctors’ testimonies, CPR was administered improperly due to the fact that Strickland’s hands were still cuffed behind his back instead of allowing his back to lie flat against the floor. The medical staff also took numerous breaks instead of continuously applying CPR.
Thirty minutes after the guards noticed Strickland had stopped breathing, prison nurse Robert Fitzgerald finally suggested removing his handcuffs when an ambulance arrived. According to the medical report taken by the ambulance crew, Strickland had suffered bruises all over his head and upper body, bloody abrasions on his knees, a missing tooth, blood and clear fluid discharging from his ears, and ligature markings around his neck. His autopsy found that Strickland had died of cardiorespiratory arrest due to cardiac ischemia, meaning his heart could not get sufficient oxygen and ceased to function.
The State Commission of Correction determined that Fitzgerald “showed complete disregard of the obvious signs of a nonresponsive inmate.” When asked why he is seen in the video standing aside and doing nothing, the prison nurse claimed that he had been waiting for Sgt. Steven Sweeney to clear Strickland as a security risk. Instead of taking responsibility for manhandling a dying inmate, Sgt. Sweeney blamed Fitzgerald for not intervening sooner.
After arriving at Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital over an hour after the start of the video, Strickland was pronounced dead. According to prison officials, the incident began that morning after a guard confiscated Strickland’s plastic hand mirror. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, Strickland became visibly upset and started arguing with Officer Casey Strong.
According to Officer Strong, Strickland allegedly punched him in the shoulder after being ordered to transfer to another cell. Strong claims that he grabbed Strickland in a bear hug before they both fell down the stairs. But several inmates have come forward asserting Strickland was thrown down the stairs before nearly two dozen guards arrived as backup, viciously beating Strickland with batons.
Watching Strickland at the bottom of the steps lying in a fetal position, inmate Kevin Goode recalled roughly 10 officers taking turns kicking Strickland in the head and ribs. Goode asserted they “beat this kid to zero.”
Although several guards involved in the Strickland incident have been named as defendants in lawsuits by inmates alleging other incidents of prisoner abuse, the officers and the nurse responsible for taking Strickland’s life either continue to work for the corrections department or have retired with full pensions. Despite the fact the State Police concluded that no criminal conduct contributed to his death, Strickland’s family has filed a lawsuit against the prison for abusing a clearly dying man in the last moments of his life.