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Prosecutors Eyeing Court Monitor to Force Rikers Reforms, Sources Say

By Eddie Small | September 23, 2014 4:37pm
 A view of the entrance to the Rikers Island prison complex.
A view of the entrance to the Rikers Island prison complex.
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Spencer Platt/Getty Images

RIKERS ISLAND — The city could be slapped with a federal lawsuit over reforms on Rikers Island that might force the Department of Correction to make changes under a court-supervised monitor, sources said.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara released a statement hinting at the possibility of legal action Monday, more than a month after his office came out with a scathing 79-page report detailing problems at the facility, specifically an "unchecked cycle of violence" in adolescent units.

Agencies had 49 days to respond to the report, and Bharara stressed in the statement that his office and the city were still working together.

"We are not, at this early stage, jumping to conclusions about the city's commitment to change, and our dialog is ongoing," he said.

"However, now that the 49-day waiting period has elapsed and all options are available to us, we stand ready to take legal action to compel long-overdue reforms at Rikers, if that becomes necessary to get the job done."

This "legal action" would likely be a civil rights lawsuit against the city and could involve an order by a judge to implement reforms overseen by a monitor, according to a source familiar with the situation.

The U.S. Attorney's Office has listed multiple reforms needed to address issues such as fighting and the use of solitary confinement at Rikers, including separate housing for adolescent inmates, an increased amount of cameras in adolescent areas and improved training for officers regarding the use of force and conflict resolution.

DOC is attempting to create a new housing category for 18- to 21-year-old inmates, and the department has created a screening tool to figure out which staff members are best suited to work with young inmates as well.

The department has also identified a training curriculum for its officers that focuses on youth brain development and crisis prevention.

The statement came in the wake of a New York Times story claiming that city officials withheld sections of a report about violence on Rikers Island from federal investigators and promoted two wardens, William Clemons and Turhan Gumusdere, who were allegedly involved with distorting data on fights between inmates at Rikers' adolescent jail. Bharara alluded to both of these issues.

"If, as has been reported, incomplete and inaccurate information has been provided to us, and questionable promotions may have occurred, it does not instill confidence in us that the city will quickly meet its constitutional obligations," he said in the statement.

Department of Correction spokesman Robin Campbell defended the agency's handling of Clemons and Gumusdere.

"Based on his assessments, [DOC] Commissioner [Joseph] Ponte found that Clemons and Gumusdere were the most qualified for promotion among the uniformed ranks," he said in an email.

The DOC also maintained that the report mentioned in the Times did not link Clemons or Gumusdere to a deliberate effort to underreport fights among inmates.

The mayor's office referred comments to the Law Department. The city's lawyer, Zachary Carter said in a statement that New York was committed to reforming practices affecting everyone held at Rikers, including adolescents.

"We expect to demonstrate through our actions and verifiable data—not promises or talk—that meaningful operational reforms are already underway and will continue," he said.