crime and punishment

8 Appalling Stories of Inmate Abuse From Rikers Island’s Teen Jails

FILE - In this July 31, 2014 file photo, Rikers Island juvenile detention facility inmates walk single file to the jail's chapel for a visit from Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons and entertainer L.L. Cool J. The city’s juvenile jails are extremely violent and unsafe, the result of a deeply ingrained culture of violence in which guards routinely violate constitutional rights of teenage inmates and subject them to “rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force,” federal prosecutors said in a scathing report released Monday, Aug. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File)
Rikers Island. Photo: Julie Jacobson/Corbis

For adolescent inmates, Rikers Island is broken,” said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara today, as he presented a truly horrifying report detailing how teenagers are treated in New York City jails. “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.” That’s actually an understatement.

According to the investigation’s findings, as reported by the New York Times and Associated Press (the full report is here), there is a “deep-seated culture of violence” against inmates, including 1,057 injuries among males under the age of 18 in 565 reported incidents in fiscal 2013. (The report covers 2011 through 2013.)

Many, many more are presumed to go unreported: “Inmates see others being beaten and attacked and are afraid that they will face the same fate,” the report states. “Simply put, Rikers is a dangerous place for adolescents and a pervasive climate of fear exists.”

Even when incidents are filed, consequences for Department of Correction employees are exceedingly rare. (“The most egregious inmate beatings frequently occur in locations without video surveillance.” Those in charge also tend to lie.) One officer with 76 uses of force on the books over the span of six years was disciplined one time, the Times notes.

Numerical figures are one thing, and are often easy to ignore or disassociate from, but the examples described in the report are harder to stomach and to forget. Even these do not tell the full story.

One reason so many abuses are not reported:

In June 2012, in an apparent act of retribution, two correction officers forcibly took an inmate to the ground and beat him. The officers punched the inmate multiple times and kicked him in the head, resulting in serious injuries including a two-centimeter laceration to his chin that required sutures, a lost tooth, and cracking and chipping to the inmate’s other teeth. According to the inmate, who was interviewed by our consultant, prior to the incident one of the officers had called him a “snitch” and was under the false impression that the inmate had previously reported that the officer had been involved in another use of force incident.

Another is the culture of “holding it down” — “Inmates who refuse to ‘hold it down’ risk retaliation from officers in the form of additional physical violence and disciplinary sanctions”:

An inmate reported that he was punched and stomped on by several officers in a school corridor after verbally insulting one of them during an argument. He asked to go to the medical clinic, but the officers refused to take him there, giving him tissues to clean himself up and telling him to “hold it down.” The inmate also described another incident in which officers beat him, injuring his arm. They refused to take him to the clinic for medical care until he agreed to tell the clinic that he hurt his arm playing basketball. He agreed to that story, and as far as he knows, the use of force was never reported.

Officers routinely gang up on inmates using “radios, batons, and broomsticks” as weapons:

In August 2013, four adolescent inmates were reportedly brutally beaten by multiple officers. Based on accounts provided by the inmates, several officers assaulted the inmates, punching and kicking them and striking them with radios, batons, and broomsticks. The beating continued for several minutes after the inmates already had been subdued and handcuffed. The inmates were then taken to holding pens near the clinic intake where they were beaten again by several DOC Gang Intelligence Unit members, who repeatedly punched and kicked them while the inmates were handcuffed. Two of the inmates reported that they had lost consciousness or blacked out during the incident. The officers’ written statements assert that the inmates instigated the fight and they used force only to defend themselves. The Department’s investigation of the incident was ongoing at the time this letter was prepared. The inmates sustained multiple injuries, including a broken nose, a perforated eardrum, head trauma, chest contusions, and contusions and injuries to the head and facial area.

And they are backed up by superiors:

In January 2012, an inmate splashed a correction officer with a liquid substance. While the inmate was flex-cuffed and being escorted away, the correction officer approached him and started punching him in his facial area, according to the investigating Captain’s report. The correction officer did not stop until a probe team officer pushed her away from the inmate. The officer then punched the wall in anger. Although the investigating Captain concluded that the force used was “not necessary, inappropriate and excessive,” a Tour Commander later reversed that position and concluded that the force used was necessary and within policy.

More than half of the teenagers at Rikers last year were diagnosed as mentally ill:

In January 2013, after reportedly being disruptive while waiting to enter the RNDC dining hall, an inmate, who was on suicide watch at the time, was taken down by a Captain and punched repeatedly on his head and upper torso while he lay face down on the ground covering his head with his hands. The inmate told investigators that the Captain had “punched [him] everywhere.” According to the Tour Commander’s report, the Captain’s use of force was “excessive and avoidable” because the inmate presented no threat while lying on the ground. The inmate sustained bruises to his left and right shoulders, left and right lower arms, chest area, neck, middle back, and a finger on his right hand, as well as an abrasion to his right elbow.

While guards work to stoke a culture of fear:

An inmate told our consultant that in February 2013 a probe team Captain lifted his hands up while he was flex-cuffed, fracturing his wrist. According to the inmate’s statement to DOC investigators, the Captain told him and the other inmates being escorted that “he would make them suffer,” and “cry like babies.” Another inmate told investigators the Captain had directed the officers to “make them scream” while the inmates were escorted through the corridor. We reviewed video of the incident showing the inmate being escorted down the corridor while rear-cuffed. We also reviewed medical records confirming that the inmate broke his left wrist as a result of the incident and required surgery. The Department’s investigation of the incident was ongoing at the time this letter was prepared.

Even over minor incidents:

In January 2014, an inmate sustained significant facial injuries as a result of a use of force incident that occurred in an RNDC school classroom. When interviewed by Board of Correction staff, the inmate reported that he was repeatedly punched and kicked in the head and face by multiple officers. The inmate claimed that the altercation began after a civilian employee’s pen had been taken. The inmate was still spitting up blood and having difficulty talking when Board of Correction staff interviewed him hours after the incident.

And when they are investigated, it goes something like this:

The ID’s investigation into an incident involving an inmate who suffered a broken tooth and laceration of the lip when an officer punched him in the face was not completed until 20 months after the incident. The two key officers involved in the incident were not interviewed by the ID until 16 months after the incident.

While Bharara’s report, addressed to Mayor de Blasio and new Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte, does include recommendations to address the poor training and lack of accountability among officers, the investigation includes no criminal charges and no names.

8 Appalling Stories of Abuse From Rikers Island