NEW YORK – Agitated and hallucinating from alcohol and heroin withdrawal, inmate Angel Ramirez took a swing at a jail guard and missed.
What followed, according to investigative documents obtained by The Associated Press, was a quick punch back from the guard that put Ramirez on the floor. Then he was dragged away, beyond the view of security cameras, and three other guards were called in. Inmates later told investigators they heard screaming and the sickening crack of nightsticks against bone.
Ramirez, 50, died of numerous blunt-impact injuries that included a ruptured spleen, shattered ribs and a stomach filled with blood. When a jail investigator interviewed the guards — eight months later — they insisted Ramirez was struck only once and only in self-defense.
That July 2011 case is among three deaths in New York City's jails over the past five years in which inmates were alleged to have been fatally beaten by guards. Yet in none of those cases was anyone ever charged with a crime.
"It's outrageous," said Ramirez family attorney Scott Rynecki, who is suing the city and provided the investigative document to the AP. "You have to have a better system in place."
The lack of accountability in the city's jail system was singled out time and again in a scathing federal review issued this month.
The government lawyers focused on juvenile facilities at the huge jail complex called Rikers Island but said their conclusions probably extend to all Rikers jails. They found that beatings often occurred out of view of security cameras, internal investigations took months to complete, and guards falsified or otherwise failed to properly fill out use-of-force forms documenting incidents.
The result, they wrote, is "a culture in which staff feel empowered to use force inappropriately, in ways that go outside the bounds of written policies, because they know they are unlikely to face any meaningful consequences."
A Correction Department spokesman wouldn't comment directly on Ramirez's case but stressed that newly appointed Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte believes excessive force is "absolutely unacceptable and will not be tolerated on his watch."
Ponte has begun rewriting use-of-force policy, installing more security cameras and revising the recruitment and training of guards, spokesman Robin Campbell said.
Criminal cases against correction officers are notoriously rare and difficult to prosecute. That's because attorneys representing jail guards expertly challenge the credibility of inmate witnesses, a code of silence permeates the ranks of officers, and inconsistencies in video footage and statements are easily exploited by defense lawyers, experts say.
Prosecutors, for example, say they didn't have enough evidence to charge anyone in the 2009 death of Clarence Mobley, a 60-year-old inmate who was awaiting transfer for a psychiatric evaluation when he hit a guard with a meal tray. The officer struck back.
An autopsy report said Mobley, who weighed 115 pounds, suffered a lacerated liver, three broken ribs, a bruised lung, scrapes and bruises on his back, buttocks, head and arms, and severe internal bleeding. He didn't get medical attention after the fight and was found dead in his cell 45 minutes later. His family settled a lawsuit over his death for $525,000.
Earlier this year the family of 52-year-old Ronald Spear, who died after being kicked in the face by guards, settled a wrongful death lawsuit for $2.75 million. He had claimed in court papers that he was retaliated against by guards for contacting lawyers about his difficulties receiving treatment for kidney disease.
In all three cases, the city medical examiner's office ruled the deaths were homcides.
Union leader Norman Seabrook, president of the powerful Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, said that while any officer who illegally uses excessive or improper force should face criminal charges, the rarity of such prosecutions is proof of how frivolous many of the allegations against his members are.
In Ramirez's case, the guard who struck him was brought up on disciplinary charges, but no decision on a punishment has been reached. An administrative judge recommended two others involved be suspended without pay for 20 days, but the correction commissioner has yet to decide their fate.
Prosecutors didn't believe they could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Ramirez's death was a criminal homicide, said Terry Raskyn, a spokeswoman for Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson. She said prosecutors investigate every allegation of guard misconduct and have brought cases involving assault and attempted murder.
Ramirez, a chronic drug user brought to Rikers after failing to make $750 bail on misdemeanor drug possession charges and endangering the welfare of a child, was pulled out of the medication line and stuck in a hallway after he acted erratically and told an officer "he was seeing people throwing knives at him and trains going around his bed," the report said. Hours later, he was walked back to his bunk without receiving his medication.
Later that night, an increasingly agitated Ramirez repeatedly asked about his "meth," went digging through a garbage can and disturbed other inmates, according to witnesses. Then he took his swing at the guard.
In a photograph taken by guards under department protocol to document the use of force, a shirtless Ramirez, with a crucifix tattooed across his chest, slouches against a wall in the shower area with an apparently dazed look. Hours later, he was dead.
Other inmates reported hearing Ramirez screaming and the sounds of someone being clubbed. One said he also heard Ramirez saying "No mas."
One inmate working as a suicide prevention aide said in a statement that he went to a bathroom to find out what was going on and saw guards beating a handcuffed Ramirez "with nightsticks coming down hard."
"This was not just a homicide," the aide, Jason Jackson wrote. "It was a cold, heartless, corrupt murder."
Associated Press writer David B. Caruso contributed to this report.