Rikers Island is a very violent place. We’ve known this for a while now and are reminded with each new report about an inmate beaten or dying at the facility. For years, inmates and advocates have called out corrections officials for the ongoing brutality at Rikers. Now the federal government has too. The U.S. Department of Justice declared, in a report released on Monday, that the conditions at Rikers Island are unconstitutional.
“We conclude that there is a pattern and practice of conduct at Rikers that violates the
constitutional rights of adolescent inmates,” the report stated. “In particular, we find that adolescent inmates at Rikers are not adequately protected from harm, including serious physical harm from the rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force by [Department of Corrections] staff.”
The investigation, which began in 2012, focused on the plight of 16-, 17-, and 18-year-old inmates. New York is one of two states that automatically charges 16-year-olds as adults. In 2012, there were 791 18-and-under inmates. That population has been declining. There were 682 in 2013, and 489 in 2014.
The report detailed a long list of problems at the jail, which houses around 140,000 total inmates. They mostly involve correction officers beating up inmates, and then covering up that they beat up inmates. Among the problems:
In 2013, according to the data, Rikers staff reported using force against an adolescent inmate 565 times. That year there were 845 reported incidents of inmate-on-inmate fights, as well. Adolescent inmates received emergency medical treatment 459 times in 2013.
Next: “excessive and inappropriate” use of solitary confinement.
See Also: Rikers Violence: Out Of Control
“Rikers Island is a broken institution,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement. “It is a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort; where verbal insults are repaid with physical injuries; where beatings are routine while accountability is rare; and where a culture of violence endures even while a code of silence prevails. The adolescents in Rikers are walled off from the public, but they are not walled off from the Constitution.”
Inmates, Bharara added, were “consigned to a corrections crucible that seems more inspired by Lord of the Flies than any legitimate philosophy of humane detention.”
The report described dozens of incidents, and suggested that there were probably other incidents that went unreported:
During our site visit, we observed another example of staff exerting pressure on inmates to remain silent. As an officer was bringing an inmate to our consultant for an interview, our consultant heard the officer tell him that he didn’t have to tell our consultant “no damn story.”
Staff, after all, has the power to send inmates into the box, where they “are confined in six-by-eight-foot single cells for 23 hours each day.” The DOJ found that jail officials’ “use of prolonged punitive segregation for adolescent inmates is excessive and inappropriate.”
On any given day in 2013, the report stated, up to 25 percent of adolescent inmates were locked up in segregation units. Around three-quarters of those inmates had been diagnosed as “seriously or moderately mentally ill.” Most of those inmates in segregation spent more than 60 days in the box. Many spent more than 90 days.
“The extremely high rates of violence and excessive use of solitary confinement for adolescent males uncovered by this investigation are inappropriate and unacceptable,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. “Going forward, we will work with the City of New York to make good on our commitment to reform practices that are unfair and unjust, and to ensure that–in all circumstances, and particularly when it comes to our young people–incarceration is used to deter, punish, and ultimately rehabilitate, not merely to warehouse and forget.”
In response to the report, DOC Commissioner Joe Ponte released a statement, noting that his department “has cooperated fully with the Department of Justice throughout its two-year investigation and we will continue work with DOJ to implement whatever additional strategies and policies are appropriate and feasible to further improve the care and safety of the adolescent population.”
Ponte took charge of the DOC in April, so the misconduct listed in the report predates his tenure. He came into the job as a reformer, and he said that many reforms are already in place.
“I have made it clear that Excessive Use of Force, unnecessary or unwarranted use of punitive segregation and corruption of any kind are absolutely unacceptable, and will not be tolerated under my watch,” he said in the statement. “We are pursuing a number of system-wide initiatives to make jails safer, including rewriting our Use of Force policy to bring it into the 21st century, and accelerating the installation of more security cameras in facilities.”
“To date,” Ponte said, “we have seen a 39 percent drop in Uses of Force among adolescent inmates, from 31 incidents in April to 19 in June.”
Next: the DOJ report.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 5, 2014