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Rikers Guards Still Use Force Against Inmates at 'Alarming Rate': Report

By  Trevor Kapp and Irene Plagianos | April 4, 2017 2:09pm 

 The federal monitor overseeing Rikers Island released a blistering new report regarding violence against inmates.
The federal monitor overseeing Rikers Island released a blistering new report regarding violence against inmates.
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Katie Honan/DNAinfo

RIKERS ISLAND — Guards at Rikers Island are still using brutal force against inmates at an "alarming rate" — striking their heads, slamming them against walls and putting them in chokeholds — according to a blistering new report submitted by the federal monitor overseeing reforms at the jail.

But the most common use of unnecessary force by Department of Correction staff still involves pepper spray, the monitor found. 

“Staff members too often use (the spray) precipitously, without taking time to summon a supervisor, and/or fail to engage in de-escalation strategies prior to (spray) use,” the report said.

The findings, which cover the period from Aug 1. to Dec. 31, 2016, are the third set released by the independent monitor and come just days after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that Rikers Island will shutter in the next decade and be replaced with smaller jails across the boroughs.

In one particularly alarming use-of-force case, a “disruptive” female inmate was pinned on the floor and put in a chokehold before a guard pulled her hair. A captain then used pepper spray three different times on her from less than six feet away, according to the report. 

That guard and the captain had also been involved in an incident five days earlier where another inmate was kicked in the face, the report stated.

The monitoring team found that there were about 305 use-of-force incidents that “involved a blow or strike to the head.”

“Many were utilized to punish, discipline, assault or retaliate against an inmate,” the report said, though it acknowledged that some of these were necessary to ensure staff safety.

“It is not hyperbole to suggest that the department has a deeply entrenched culture of managing troublesome and/or often potentially dangerous inmates with an ‘iron fist,’” it found.

In the last quarter of 2016, guards suffered more injuries than inmates, according to the report.

Fights among inmates on the island have also increased dramatically, particularly among 16- and 17-year-olds, the report said.

“The Department is encouraged to continue to strive to understand the root causes of violence among young inmates and whether patterns exist in terms of the location or the staff present when violence occurs,” it stated.

Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte said that progress to curb violence on the island was being made, but acknowledged the department has a long way to go.

“DOC is moving quickly to fix the issues the monitor identifies,” he said in a statement. “We recognize much more hard work lies ahead, and we look forward to working diligently with the monitor and his staff to establish a culture of safety.”

The heads of the city's correction officers' unions — speaking at a press conference to challenge the plan to shut down Rikers — said they hadn't had a chance to read the monitor's report, but placed blame on a "few bad apples" and said correction officers are the ones who are in danger every day from inmate attacks.

"There’s always a couple of bad apples, said Patrick Ferraiuolo, the president of Correction Captains' Association on Tuesday. "What I tell my membership: this is not the dinosaur age, this is not what happens on Rikers Island stays on Rikers Island — but the majority, 99.9 percent, are doing the right thing."

READ MORE: Replacing Rikers Island With Local Jails is the 'Only Solution': Commission

The union heads also said the mayor's plan to shut down Rikers, which would take 10 years, does nothing to address the violence against correction officers now. 

The mayor's plan is a "failure" said Elias Husamudeen, president of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association. The plan is "long on rhetoric and short on reality," he said, adding that "no one is confronting jail violence today."  The union plans to release its own proposal for reforms, though it was not clear when.

Glenn Martin, the president of advocacy group, Just Leadership USA, which has been part of the campaign to close Rikers, said the monitor's report bolsters the plan to shut down Rikers.

“The findings from this latest report reinforce the urgency to close Rikers, but also remind us that he have to be equally vigilant in ensuring that the abusive culture of Rikers does not infiltrate our vision for smaller, more humane, community-based jails," he said.


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