Bebeto Matthews / AP

DOJ: NYC jail routinely violates teen inmates’ rights

Detailed 79-page report describes what federal officials called a ‘deep-seated culture of violence’ at Rikers Island

Inmates at New York City’s Rikers Island correctional facilities have been subjected to a “pattern and practice of conduct … that violates the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates,” according to a damning multiyear investigation unveiled Monday by the Department of Justice (DOJ).

The federal probe, which focused on practices and conduct by the city’s Department of Correction (DOC) from 2011 to 2013, described what it called a “deep-seated culture of violence” that was “pervasive throughout the adolescent facilities at Rikers.”

The report said that DOC staff routinely used force “not as a last resort but instead as a means to control the adolescent population and punish disorderly or disrespectful behavior.” 

“As our investigation has shown, for adolescents, Rikers Island is a broken institution,” said Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, which released the report on the investigation’s findings. “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 DOJ said there were 517 incidents of use of force by staff in 2012, which resulted in 1,059 injuries. In 2013 there were 565 instances of use of force by staff, resulting in 1,057 injuries. 

“These are extraordinary figures, considering that the average daily adolescent population at Rikers was only 682 in FY 2013 and 791 in FY 2012," the DOJ wrote in its report. 

The report comes amid a string of problems at the New York City jail complex. In July city officials agreed to pay a $2.75 million settlement to the family of an inmate who was allegedly beaten to death by correction officers. And in May the mother of a mentally ill homeless veteran found dead in a 100-degree cell at Rikers Island filed a multimillion-dollar wrongful-death lawsuit against the city.

Earlier this year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio promised reforms for Rikers Island and appointed Joseph Ponte, who previously served as commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections, as commissioner of the DOC. 

"Since joining the Department of Correction in April, 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," Ponte said in a statement. "We are pursuing a number of systemwide 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."

The 79-page DOJ report also found that “correction officers resort to ‘headshots,’ or blows to an inmate’s head or facial area, too frequently.” The DOJ said that it identified 64 incidents in which a blow was delivered to an adolescent inmate’s head or face in the time frame of its investigation.

The report highlighted one such incident, in August of 2013, when an inmate reportedly did not comply with an order to sweep up debris and allegedly spit on an officer’s face. The officer then punched the inmate in the facial area, according to a departmental report cited in the DOJ probe. That inmate suffered an injury that required sutures, the DOJ report said, adding “there was no video surveillance of the incident.”

Another point of the investigation focused on “punitive segregation,” or what the DOJ characterized as akin to solitary confinement, and its use as a disciplinary measure. The report notes that many inmates held in the facilities were mentally ill.

“These conditions have resulted in serious harm to adolescent inmates at Rikers,” the report said.

The DOJ also said that “inadequate staff discipline for inappropriate use of force” and “inadequate reporting by staff of the use of force, including false reporting” were some of the “systemic deficiencies” at Rikers.

“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. “When it comes to our young people, incarceration is used to deter, punish and ultimately rehabilitate, not merely to warehouse and forget.”

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