Young inmates at Rikers Island prison in New York City have their civil rights "systematically violated" by a corrections staff that uses brutal violence and solitary confinement as a first-resort means of punishment and control, a federal investigation has found.
Department of Corrections (DOC) officers beat and segregate teenage prisoners, many of whom have mental illnesses, so brutally and regularly that the adolescent ward at Rikers has become plagued by a "deep-seated culture of violence," the United States attorney in Manhattan announced on Tuesday. In a detailed 79-page report that investigated incidents of violence against inmates 16-18 years old, the office of Preet Bharara describes a gruesome environment where juveniles "are not adequately protected from harm, including serious physical harm from the rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force by DOC staff... [who] utilize force not as a last resort, but instead as a means to control the adolescent population and punish disorderly or disrespectful behavior."
Violence against inmates has led to "a striking number of serious injuries, including broken jaws, broken orbital bones, broken noses, long bone fractures, and lacerations requiring sutures," the report states. "Moreover, DOC relies far too heavily on punitive segregation as a disciplinary measure, placing adolescent inmates — many of whom are mentally ill — in what amounts to solitary confinement at an alarming rate and for excessive periods of time."
In 2013, there were 565 reported incidents of staff using force against juvenile inmates, resulting in over 1,000 injuries. The number of incidents had risen from the previous year, despite the average daily population decreasing by more than 100 inmates, from 791 to 682. "Indeed, while adolescents make up only about six percent of the average daily population at Rikers, they were involved in a disproportionate 21 percent of all incidents involving use of force and/or serious injuries," the investigation states. Guards operate with little fear of reprisal for their violent behavior, while a "powerful code of silence" keeps other staff who witness use of force from reporting it.
"Solitary confinement is one of the harshest and most extreme forms of punishment one human can inflict on another."
— Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLUMost inmates were beaten or restrained for nonviolent infractions, the investigation found. Officers violated the department's polices by immediately using force instead of "lesser intervention," even in response to "refusals to follow orders, verbal taunts, or insults," when the inmates posed no threat to the safety of guards or other inmates. In one incident, officers beat a group of inmates with batons and broomsticks. Another suffered a skull fracture for making a "smart remark" after a strip search. A mentally ill inmate had his arm broken when an officer slammed the cuff port in his cell door shut before he could remove his hand. Many were forced out of sight of security cameras before an assault. Others were beaten for playing with their food, falling asleep in a class, and, in at least one grim scenario, for attempting to report previous incidents of guard brutality.
"For adolescent inmates, Rikers Island is broken," Bharara said at a news conference to release the report. "It is a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort, a place where verbal insults are repaid with physical injuries, where beatings are routine while accountability is rare."
In addition to beatings, inmates were often forced into solitary confinement, also known as extreme isolation or punitive segregation. According to the NYCLU, it has been "consistently identified as a cause of disastrous and sometimes permanent mental and physical health effects by experts including the American Psychological Association, particularly for adolescents and individuals with mental health conditions or disabilities."
"Solitary confinement is one of the harshest and most extreme forms of punishment one human can inflict on another. Tragically, it is routinely used as a disciplinary tool of first resort, an abuse that endangers prisoners and corrections officials and decreases safety in prisons and our communities," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU.
Rikers, the second-largest prison in the U.S., is no stranger to criticism. Cases of guard brutality, particularly against inmates of color or with mental illnesses, have been reported and fought in court for decades. But widespread evidence of DOC violence — including security video footage — has done little to combat the unending problem. Court cases are often settled privately, which is ineffective in helping institute prison policy reform. Meanwhile, inside the jails themselves, a system-wide lack of departmental managers "contributes to a broken organizational culture within the facilities that is largely defined by anti-inmate attitudes and a powerful code of silence," the report finds. Incidents were rarely looked into and investigations were often impeded by incomplete or misleading reports of guard brutality. Many DOC staff who witnessed these cases of violence often wrote that inmates had assaulted the guards — but ended their reports without detailing what the guards did in response. Other civilian staff members, such as doctors and teachers, failed to report incidents and faced retaliation when they did.
"For adolescent inmates, Rikers Island is broken."
—Preet Bharara, US attorney
"There is no question that the Department has a long and troubled history of staff use of force against inmates, which reinforces our finding of a deeply entrenched organizational culture that accepts violence as an inherent part of a jail environment," the report says.
The complaints have not come solely from the juvenile ward; in fact, the report finds that violence against inmates "may exist in equal measure" in its adult housing facilities.
The investigation was conducted by the civil division of the U.S. attorney’s office. The report, which included more than 10 pages of potential reforms, gave the city 49 days to initiate new policies, and warned that if officials did not respond in time, the Justice Department could bring a federal lawsuit to enforce the suggested remedies by judicial order.
Norman Seabrook, president of the DOC officers' union, defended the use of force against inmates who became aggressive. "There may be a few that react with what you might think is excessive force, but in defense of an officer being assaulted by an inmate, a correction officer must use whatever force is necessary to terminate the assault," he said in a statement.
DOC commissioner Joseph Ponte said there had been a 39 percent drop in violence against inmates since he took office in April. He said the department has been “cooperating fully” with the investigation.
All of the officers who were investigated in the report claimed their use of force was appropriate.