DOJ Probe Reveals Use Of Excessive Force At New York Prison

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The Justice Department found constitutional rights violations of adolescent inmates at Rikers Island. Corrections officers are said to use solitary confinement as a first-resort disciplinary action.


New York City's famous Rikers Island prison is plagued by a, quote, "deep-seated culture of violence" among adolescent inmates. That's the conclusion of an investigation the Justice Department carried out over several years. That same investigation says the guards helped to foster the dangerous environment. Sarah Gonzales of member station WNYC has more.

SARAH GONZALES, BYLINE: The investigation finds that corrections officers use solitary confinement of 16- to 18-year-old male inmates at Rikers Island excessively and inappropriately. It finds the Department of Corrections in New York City has failed to protect inmates from excessive force by corrections officers and against harm caused by other inmates.

PREET BHARARA: Rikers Island is a broken institution for adolescents.

GONZALES: Preet Bharara is the U.S. attorney in Manhattan. He says corrections officers at Rikers Island too frequently resort to head shots.

BHARARA: Those are shots to the head and face of adolescents - often with the use of a closed fist.

GONZALES: The reports details instances of young inmates suffering a fractured skull or a broken wrist, lacerations from kicks to the head or lost teeth - frequently for nonviolent behavior that included talking back to corrections officers, refusing to sleep or spitting.

Last year, corrections officers caused more than 1,000 injuries to the fewer than 700 adolescent inmates at the facility, many of whom have not yet been tried. Bharara says the use of force is particularly common in areas where there isn't a surveillance camera. He's recommending more cameras throughout the facility.

BHARARA: So that inmates cannot be dragged into areas with no video cameras just to be beaten - something that we saw time and time again in our investigation.

GONZALES: The report was addressed to Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Department of Corrections, although the findings are based on conditions during the last four years of the previous administration under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In an e-mail, the new commissioner says the Department of Corrections is rewriting its Use of Force policy and working to install more security cameras. But Robert Cohen, a physician and member of the Advisory Board of Corrections in the city, says more needs to be done.

ROBERT COHEN: I don't know why they have not closed down solitary confinement for adolescents. I think they could do it today.

GONZALES: Cohen is the former director of mental health at Rikers Island. He says some minors are held in solitary confinement for months - again for nonviolent behavior.

COHEN: This is not going to prepare them for the world they need to be part of.

GONZALES: In New York State, anyone over 16 is automatically charged as an adult, although anyone under 18 is housed in a secure section away from the adult inmates. New York City resident Janet Wilkins says the report is alarming.

JANET WILKINS: Violence against the teenagers from the actual officers - I think that they should be fired. Reprimanding is not enough for me. I wouldn't, you know - even though the kids are incarcerated for various reasons, they still are juveniles. And they shouldn't be abused.

GONZALES: The U.S. attorney and the Department of Justice have made 70 recommendations to the city that include ramping up accountability for officers who abuse their power. The city has 49 days to respond to avoid a possible lawsuit. The Department of Correction says it plans to work with the federal government to improve care and safety of the adolescent population. Under the new commissioner, there has already been a drop in the reports of the use of force among adolescent inmates from 31 incidents in April to 19 in June. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Gonzales in New York.

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