Young inmates at Rikers Island prison in New York City have their civil rights “systematically violated” by a corrections staff that uses brutal violence and solitary confinement as a first-resort means of punishment and control, a federal investigation has found.
Department of Corrections (DOC) officers beat and segregate teenage prisoners, many of whom have mental illnesses, so brutally and regularly that the adolescent ward at Rikers has become plagued by a “deep-seated culture of violence,” the United States attorney in Manhattan announced on Tuesday. In a detailed 79-page report that investigated incidents of violence against inmates 16-18 years old, the office of Preet Bharara describes a gruesome environment where juveniles “are not adequately protected from harm, including serious physical harm from the rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force by DOC staff… [who] utilize force not as a last resort, but instead as a means to control the adolescent population and punish disorderly or disrespectful behavior.”
Violence against inmates has led to “a striking number of serious injuries, including broken jaws, broken orbital bones, broken noses, long bone fractures, and lacerations requiring sutures,” the report states. “Moreover, DOC relies far too heavily on punitive segregation as a disciplinary measure, placing adolescent inmates — many of whom are mentally ill — in what amounts to solitary confinement at an alarming rate and for excessive periods of time.”
In 2013, there were 565 reported incidents of staff using force against juvenile inmates, resulting in over 1,000 injuries. The number of incidents had risen from the previous year, despite the average daily population decreasing by more than 100 inmates, from 791 to 682. “Indeed, while adolescents make up only about six percent of the average daily population at Rikers, they were involved in a disproportionate 21 percent of all incidents involving use of force and/or serious injuries,” the investigation states. Guards operate with little fear of reprisal for their violent behavior, while a “powerful code of silence” keeps other staff who witness use of force from reporting it.
“Solitary confinement is one of the harshest and most extreme forms of punishment one human can inflict on another.”
— Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLUMost inmates were beaten or restrained for nonviolent infractions, the investigation found. Officers violated the department’s polices by immediately using force instead of “lesser intervention,” even in response to “refusals to follow orders, verbal taunts, or insults,” when the inmates posed no threat to the safety of guards or other inmates. In one incident, officers beat a group of inmates with batons and broomsticks. Another suffered a skull fracture for making a “smart remark” after a strip search. A mentally ill inmate had his arm broken when an officer slammed the cuff port in his cell door shut before he could remove his hand. Many were forced out of sight of security cameras before an assault. Others were beaten for playing with their food, falling asleep in a class, and, in at least one grim scenario, for attempting to report previous incidents of guard brutality.
“For adolescent inmates, Rikers Island is broken,” Bharara said at a news conference to release the report. “It is a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort, a place where verbal insults are repaid with physical injuries, where beatings are routine while accountability is rare.”
In addition to beatings, inmates were often forced into solitary confinement, also known as extreme isolation or punitive segregation. According to the NYCLU, it has been “consistently identified as a cause of disastrous and sometimes permanent mental and physical health effects by experts including the American Psychological Association, particularly for adolescents and individuals with mental health conditions or disabilities.”
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“Solitary confinement is one of the harshest and most extreme forms of punishment one human can inflict on another. Tragically, it is routinely used as a disciplinary tool of first resort, an abuse that endangers prisoners and corrections officials and decreases safety in prisons and our communities,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU.
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