Aitabdellah Salem spent 138 additional days in jail after a judge ordered his release from Rikers Island. Salem claims his Legal Aid attorneys did not inform him that his bail was reduced from $50,000 to just $1.
Although Mayor Bill de Blasio released plans last week to close the city’s notorious jail complex within a decade, 9,400 detainees are still being held at the facility critics deem inhumane. From November 28, 2014 to April 15, 2015, Salem was one of them..
He’s now suing the city of New York and his “negligent” Legal Aid attorneys, among others, in Manhattan federal court for “unlawful incarceration and restraint of liberty,” according to the suit filed Monday. The suit accuses senior officials in the New York City Department of Correction of knowingly allowing jail employees to break Rikers policies, creating an unwritten policy that is “deeply embedded in the culture of the Department of Correction.”
“Mr. Salem suffered injury, emotional distress, anxiety and frustration as a result of his excessive and unlawful confinement,” the suit reads.
Salem’s bail was originally set at $50,000 after he was arrested for stealing a coat from Zara on Fifth Avenue. He was not told his bail was reduced to $1 the day after his arrest, the suit says.
Salem was arrested on assault charges in August 2016. He is now in custody at Collins Correctional Facility in New York.
Bail reduction is one of the strategies included in de Blasio’s ten year plan aimed to reduce the jail population at Rikers. Glenn Martin, founder of the nonprofit group JustLeadershipUSA, which seeks to decrease the number of incarcerated Americans, says he has doubts about de Blasio’s sincerity in that goal. Salem’s mismanaged case is no surprise for a place like Rikers, Martin said, where 50 percent of the population turns over every ten days.
“Referred to as ‘torture island,’ no one should be surprised at this outcome at a place where 80 percent of the thousands of people there have not been convicted of a crime at all, but they have no voice. It’s the culture at Rikers,” Martin said.
Peter Thorne, Department of Correction spokesperson, told The Daily Beast, “We have zero tolerance for the mistreatment of any inmate, and we take such claims seriously. The vast majority of our officers carry out their duties with care and integrity.”
Officials are also implementing pre-trial diversion programs and alternatives to jail, particularly for those with behavioral health needs, to reduce the Rikers population. Salem was diagnosed with schizophrenia before he was arrested and the suit claims the defendants were aware of his diagnosis.
The suit alleges Rikers correctional officers “ignored his unrelenting pleas for information regarding his freedom” in the months following his lowered bail.
De Blasio released a plan on June 22 to invest $30 million to improve the safety of Rikers Island while reducing its population for its ultimate closure. Critics say Rikers is beyond repair and de Blasio’s self-proclaimed “realistic” plan to close the facility lacks urgency. The plan includes significant investments to the current facility despite its upcoming closure—including investing in full camera coverage and completing ongoing renovations.
“This is a human rights atrocity in his own back yard,” Martin said of de Blasio.
While de Blasio’s plan kicks off, managing an ever-changing population amid archaic facilities and procedures, Martin said, likely caused Salem’s situation and countless others. Salem’s lawyer, Welton Wisham, told New York Post he will be investigating whether others were unlawfully kept after their release from Rikers.
“There may just well be others, but I have to get discovery to prove that,” Wisham said.
The suit alleges Legal Aid attorneys Eric Williams, Stephen Pokart and Jerome Greco “recklessly and deliberately ignored the Plaintiff's Constitutional rights” when they did not inform Salem of his set hearing date and waived his right to stand before a judge without Salem’s consent or knowledge.
The Legal Aid Society declined to comment.