Rikers Island has been under more scrutiny since two inmates died in their cells, one due to overheating and another after not receiving his medication for a week, but now it looks like that was just the tip of the iceberg. Following a four-month investigation, the New York Times reports that “brutal attacks by correction officers on inmates — particularly those with mental-health issues — are common occurrences inside Rikers.” The paper learned of dozens of horrific assaults through interviews with inmates, correction officers, and medical personnel, but the most damning piece of evidence is an internal study conducted by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The report, which the department refused to release under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, found that from January to November last year, 129 inmates suffered injuries at the hands of correction officers that were so serious they had to be transferred for emergency treatment.
And there are more disturbing statistics: Seventy-seven percent of the seriously injured inmates had been diagnosed with a mental illness. Over a third of the inmates suffered broken bones, more than 40 percent needed stitches, and 73 percent received head injuries. Of the 80 injured inmates interviewed by staff, 80 percent said they were beaten after they were handcuffed. It appears that none of the officers involved in the attacks have been charged.
Jails serve as de facto mental-health facilities across the country, though they’re usually poorly equipped to handle mental illness. At Rikers, the percentage of inmates suffering from a mental illness has doubled over the last eight years to nearly 40 percent. Meanwhile, the use of force by officers has increased by nearly 90 percent over the past five years.
Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who is known for reforming Maine’s prison system, acknowledged that the department is “deeply troubled” when he took over in April. He said in an interview with the Times that there are plans to provide more mentoring for rookie officers, install more security cameras, and rewrite the department’s outdated policies on the use of force. But despite reports of dozens of brutal beatings, and frequent attempts to cover them up, he said there are only a few officers who engage in such behavior. “We really don’t have a culture of violence,” he said. “We have problems and we’re working to address those.”