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Feds to oversee reforms at New York’s Rikers Island jail complex

Deal between NYC and Justice Department stems from lawsuit over civil rights violations against teen inmates

A federal monitor will oversee reforms at New York City's Rikers Island jail complex as part of a settlement between the city and the Justice Department of a lawsuit over systemic civil rights violations against teenage inmates, a source familiar with the matter said.

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for New York's southern district, joined the class action suit against the city in December after an investigation into the treatment of teenage males at the complex.

The source, who was not authorized to discuss the case publicly, said the agreement would call for the appointment of a federal monitor. The source did not confirm any other details of the settlement.

The New York Times reported on Thursday that, among other provisions, the deal would bar corrections officers from striking inmates on the head and would introduce body cameras for guards.

Bharara said at a public event on Thursday that he was “very confident” a settlement would be reached by Monday.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's office also said that an agreement had been reached and that reforms were already underway. Details were not provided.

"Our goal remains to reduce violence that impacts both inmates and staff, and this agreement will be a major step towards the achievement of that vision," de Blasio’s office said in a news release.

The lawsuit followed a report last August describing a pattern of violent abuse of male inmates ages 16 to 18 by guards at Rikers. The Rikers complex, in the East River, consists of 10 facilities that hold an average of nearly 11,000 inmates a day. 

Only a handful of the country's thousands of jails, prisons and mental hospitals are known to have problems serious enough to draw the Justice Department's attention each year under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.

The statute empowers the department to carry out a civil investigation into broader systemic problems of inmate abuse, as opposed to a more narrow criminal investigation into misconduct by individual employees.

Conditions at Rikers, the nation's second-largest jail system, have drawn national scrutiny over the last year after repeated reports of inmate beatings, guard corruption and the mistreatment of the mentally ill.

The Justice Department began investigating Rikers in 2012. The department says the city allowed guards to routinely batter inmates, sometimes even after they had been cuffed, deliberately dragging them out of view of security cameras. Its report also mentioned the heavy use of solitary confinement and poor management oversight.

Rikers’ controversial solitary confinement policy came into focus earlier this month when Kalief Browder, a high school student from the Bronx borough of New York City who was incarcerated in the facility after allegedly stealing a backpack — a crime he said he didn't commit — committed suicide on June 6. Because Browder’s family could not post bail at the time of his arrest, Kalief remained at Rikers for three years and spent more than a year in solitary. Browder made several attempts to commit suicide while at Rikers.

Earlier this week Terrence Pendergrass, a former supervising guard at Rikers, was sentenced to five years in federal prison for refusing to help a mentally ill inmate who died in 2012 after swallowing powdered detergent. 

According to court papers, Pendergrass, 51, told other jail employees he didn't want to be bothered unless there was a "dead body" in the cell after the inmate, Jason Echevarria, told two other correction officers he had swallowed the detergent.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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