Rikers Island Fosters 'Unchecked Cycle of Violence' Against Teens, Feds Say
NEW YORK — Adolescent inmates at Rikers Island jail are subjected to a "systematic culture of violence" where Department of Correction officers are allowed to routinely beat teens without fear of discipline, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Monday.
"Rikers Island is broken," Bharara told reporters at a press conference Monday afternoon, while releasing a long-running, 79-page report into the conditions at the troubled facility.
"There is a pattern and practice of conduct at Rikers that violates the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates," he said.
Bharara said investigators pored over thousands of pages of incident reports from the adolescent facilities at Rikers Island from 2011 to 2013, and found the jail's oversight was "more inspired by the 'Lord of the Flies' than any legitimate philosophy of humane detention."
Investigators analyzed the number of inmates sent to solitary confinement, those sent for medical treatment and those beaten by guards, and found an "unchecked cycle of violence," he added.
Among the findings were that officers routinely took advantage of gaps in surveillance camera coverage, dragging inmates to "black holes" where they could beat them with impunity, he said.
They also sent inmates to punitive segregation, or solitary confinement, at an alarming rate — with 15 to 25 percent of the inmates sent to solitary confinement after nonviolent incidents on any given day, Bharara said.
Many inmates were sentenced to up to 60 days in solitary, a troubling trend given the findings on how that affects adolescents' mental and physical health, he said.
Other problems include poorly-trained new DOC officers sent to adolescent facilities, who quickly resorted to violence as a punitive or retaliatory measure rather than for "legitimate purposes."
Officers also routinely got off with no punishment after lying about violent incidents, even when the medical reports and surveillance footage showed otherwise, Bharara said.
"The DOC fails to adequately discipline staff for using inappropriate force against adolescents," Bharara said, citing one officer who was involved in 76 incidents involving force. That officer was only disciplined once and allowed to continue to work in the adolescent facility, he said.
Bharara's report set forward more than 70 suggestions for improving the facility, including transferring adolescent inmates off Rikers to a facility where officers are better trained and where there is zero tolerance for fraudulent reporting.
Bharara said he had provided copies of the report to the Department of Correction and other relevant agencies Monday morning, and was optimistic that they would cooperate before the 49-day response deadline.
He was quick to point out that the report was not intended as a slap at the DOC staff, adding "it is a really, really hard job. and the population we are talking about is a hard population. Most people do it well. But there's a problem with respect to others who don't."
Nor was it a problem with the current administration, he said, adding that they inherited the longstanding problem.
"It is a problem of training, it is a problem of culture, it is a problem of supervision," he said. "The point is not to assign blame but to fix the problem," Bharara said
In a statement, Department of Correction Commissioner Joe Ponte said the agency is working with the Department of Justice to "implement whatever additional strategies and policies are appropriate and feasible to further improve the care and safety of the adolescent population."
Since being appointed in April Ponte said he has focused on eliminating the necessary use of force and punitive segregation. From April to June, the use of force against adolescent inmates has dropped 39 percent to 19 incidents in June down from 31 in April, according to DOC statistics.
In addition to creating a working group to focus on the best practices of managing adolescent inmates, the department is recruiting dedicated staff with special training in adolescent development.
To comply with state law, 16 and 17-year-old inmates were recent separated from 18-year-olds and plans are in the work to create specialized housing for 18 to 21-year-old inmates.
Jeff Mays contributed reporting.