DOJ Report Details The Massive Amount Of Violence Committed By Rikers Island Staff Against Adolescent Inmates

from the the-infernal-machine dept

Late in 2012, two mentally-ill minors were taken from their cells at Rikers and beaten by a shift captain and multiple guards, who took turns punching the two inmates while they were restrained. A jail clinician reported seeing one of them being punched in the head while handcuffed to a gurney. Another clinician said she saw staff striking the other while he screamed for them to stop hurting him. One of the two told consultants he was still spitting up blood “more than a month after the incident.”

This was prompted by the inmates’ refusal to “comply with earlier search procedures” and for “throwing urine” on guards. When questioned about this retaliatory beating by a prison physician, the captain said the inmates had banged their own heads against the wall. Other statements gathered infer that those involved pressured clinic staff to corroborate this story. The official report said simply: “The inmates were escorted to the clinic without further incident or force used.”

We’ve long since dismissed the idea that the prison system offers any sort of reform or rehabilitation. Instead, it’s a place where people are sent to be forgotten, broken down or completely destroyed. The Rikers Island prison in New York is no exception, but it does “offer” something many others don’t. Because New York law treats everyone 16 and up as adults when it comes to criminal charges, minors are sent into the general population to co-exist with those with years or decades of criminal experience under their belts.

But there should be someone acting as a force of good, or at least neutrality, inside the prison: the guards. According to the DOJ’s investigation of Rikers Island, those tasked with watching the prison population are indistinguishable from the long-term inhabitants. And those perceived as weakest — the newly-imprisoned minors — are targeted most frequently.

In the driest terms, the DOJ breaks down the problems at Rikers.

We conclude that there is a pattern and practice of conduct at Rikers that violates the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates. In particular, we find that adolescent inmates at Rikers are not adequately protected from harm, including serious physical harm from the rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force by DOC staff. In addition, adolescent inmates are not adequately protected from harm caused by violence inflicted by other inmates, including inmate-on-inmate fights. Indeed, we find that a deep-seated culture of violence is pervasive throughout the adolescent facilities at Rikers, and DOC staff routinely utilize force not as a last resort, but instead as a means to control the adolescent population and punish disorderly or disrespectful behavior. 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.

This opening statement is alarming, but the devil is in the details, as they say. And Rikers’ staff are operating at near-Satanic levels.

Based on a review of Department 24-hour reports from October 2012 through early April 2014, we identified 64 incidents involving blows to an adolescent inmate’s head or face. This is undoubtedly an underestimate of the number of headshots during this period, because 24hour reports contain only initial incident summaries prepared by staff themselves. Indeed, our review of incidents and witness interviews suggest that headshots were utilized far more frequently during this period. However, the fact that these summaries so often openly refer to headshots is disturbing.

Our consultant reported that headshots are far more common at Rikers than at any other correctional institution he has observed. In many instances, correction officers readily admit hitting inmates but claim they acted in self-defense after being punched first by the inmate. As a threshold matter, even when an inmate strikes an officer, an immediate retaliatory strike to the head or face is inappropriate. Moreover, there is often reason to question the credibility of the officer’s account. These incidents also disproportionately occur in locations without video surveillance, making it difficult to determine what transpired.

Those who intimately know the system know how to abuse it. The report details incident after incident that cannot be fully confirmed because it occurred out of view of the cameras. This is no accident. Inmate-on-guard violence can almost always be quantified because the inmate either doesn’t know the camera’s full scope or just doesn’t care. But guards who want to hide their violent acts know where to go to escape the pervasive surveillance.

Where video exists, [there is a] failure to describe the events on the video. Often there is just a summary statement that the video was reviewed and consistent with officers’ use of force reports. Because video recordings so frequently go missing, as described above, without an accurate and detailed description of the video recording, there is no longer any objective record of the incident.

They also know how to deploy CYA phrases for beatings with witnesses, a little trick often used by abusive police officers.

While utilizing force, staff often yell “stop resisting” even though the adolescent has been completely subdued or, in many instances, was never resisting in the first place. This appears intended to establish a record that the continued use of force is necessary to control the inmate. Officers who witness the incident also frequently report that they heard the inmate was resisting, even though that is false.

In law enforcement, “stop resisting” is a mantra to be chanted while swinging fists, batons or anything else that might inflict pain. Rikers Island fits right in with its brothers on the outside.

This list neatly summarizes the brutal force that is the Rikers Island staff:

  • force is used against adolescents at an alarming rate and violent inmate-on-inmate fights and assaults are commonplace, resulting in a striking number of serious injuries;
  • correction officers resort to “headshots,” or blows to an inmate’s head or facial area, too frequently;
  • force is used as punishment or retribution;
  • force is used in response to inmates’ verbal altercations with officers;
  • use of force by specialized response teams within the jails is particularly brutal;
  • correction officers attempt to justify use of force by yelling “stop resisting” even when the adolescent has been completely subdued or was never resisting in the first place; and
  • use of force is particularly common in areas without video surveillance cameras.

The long report details numerous, extremely violent incidents, like this one:

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 chillingly matter-of-fact footnotes point to the pervasive culture of violence maintained by Rikers staff.

RNDC inmates suffered 22 jaw fractures during the first 5 ½ months of 2012 alone.

The ultimate problem here is that the DOJ could investigate nearly every prison in the country and come away with reports nearly as damning. A severe imbalance of power, only occasionally addressed by very minimal checks or repercussions, leads directly to this sort of behavior.

The violence is abhorrent. That it’s often directed at the weakest members of the prison population is even more so. And the staff knows what it’s doing is completely wrong. The report shows that staff falsified reports, destroyed recordings, instructed clinic staff to corroborate their lies, told visiting teaching staff to “look away” from violent incidents (and keep their students from viewing these beatings as well) and failed to investigate questionable reports in a thorough or timely fashion.

Going to prison is never expected to be a pleasant experience, but one would hope they only needed to watch out for their fellow inmates. The Rikers staff’s behavior ensures there is no safe haven inside its walls.

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Comments on “DOJ Report Details The Massive Amount Of Violence Committed By Rikers Island Staff Against Adolescent Inmates”

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35 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

The missing detail

What I really want to know, is after a report like that, exactly how many people are now facing investigations and criminal charges?

A finding of ‘The guards at Prison X regularly beat inmates’ is ultimately meaningless, if nothing is done to address, and fix the situation. If anything, a refusal to investigate further and file charges, or an indifference about the matter does nothing more than validate such abhorrent treatment, making it just another facet of prison life, ‘legal’ and acceptable in practice, even if not on paper.

However, and while I’d love to be proven wrong on this, I imagine even after a damning report like this, very few if any of those involved will ever find themselves behind the defendant’s table in a court-room, since the DOJ seems to have a massive blind-spot when it comes to spotting, and bringing charges against, those in power who abuse their authority and position.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: The missing detail

What I really want to know, is after a report like that, exactly how many people are now facing investigations and criminal charges?

None, no one gives a crap about the inmates, they are bad.
Those poor guards having to work in such a hostile environment, they deserve to take out their frustrations!

David says:

It's a correctional facility

Going to prison is never expected to be a pleasant experience, but one would hope they only needed to watch out for their fellow inmates.

That’s bullshit.

Prisons and wards are supposed to be correctional facilities where inmates are to learn and reflect that they cannot break or take the laws into their own hands, and that people’s rights are to be respected.

What the U.S. considers “fighting crime” makes as little sense as what it considers “fighting terrorism”.

“We can be worse criminals than you ever imagined” helps as little as “we can be worse terrorists than you ever imagined”.

This is not a competition. It is light that defeats the dark.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: It's a correctional facility

THANK YOU for the clarification. I’ve taken to calling that (comparing actual Nazi history to modern history) applied Godwinism.

Prisons have a nasty history to begin with. Look up the “separate system” and “the crank” (precursor to the treadmill) and “prison hulks” for tidbits of our esteemed history of corrections.

I suspect that Rikers is not alone in this form of abuse. Prison guards are notorious nationwide (if not worldwide) for not only being abusive, themselves, but also colluding in abuse between prisoners. And the common belief outside prisons is “they deserve it”.

It’s cruel, although usual punishment.

Rich says:

Re: Re: Re:2 It's a correctional facility

Thank you, but I think you misunderstood me. I wasn’t saying that it’s not applicable to Godwin’s Law because the article drew some parallel to Nazis. I’m saying it’s not because the article never mentioned them at all. It was Rocky that inferred some connection to Nazis, and tried to yell, “Godwin!” That doesn’t count.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: It's a correctional facility

“Prisons and wards are supposed to be correctional facilities where inmates are to learn and reflect that they cannot break or take the laws into their own hands, and that people’s rights are to be respected.”

No, that’s old-style thinking. Remember? There was a time when they were called “correctional facilities” because there was the idea that those place in them should be “corrected” or “rehabilitated” or some such.

We dispensed with all that a long time ago. We no longer have many correctional facilities. Now we just have prisons.

“It is light that defeats the dark.”

I just wish we had some of that light.

Anonymous Coward says:

so, at 16 years of age, a person can be charged as an adult and thrown to the other older, more habitual and violent criminals, to be tortured and destroyed by a system that is supposed to put them on the straight and narrow. then the guards are also part of the system that does the same to these 16 year olds as the other older, more habitual, violent criminals do. but you’re not allowed by law to have sex, let alone be a parent or to vote in the primaries in most states. now that has to be the most ridiculous thing out! these kids, and that is exactly what they are, have only just become old enough to leave school! and regardless of anything else, whoever is in charge of the staff, particularly the guards needs to be the one who takes the greatest punishment, by being imprisoned him/her self!!

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Be careful about citing the SPE — it doesn’t actually show what most people (including you) think it shows. Since the principle investigator was actively encouraging the abuses (and often even suggested specific ones for the fake guards to engage in), what it actually shows is not that people given authority will inevitably become abusive but that people tend to engage in abusive behavior when instructed to do so by authority figures — something that has been well established for a very, very , very long time.

MatBastardson (profile) says:

Cruel and unusual.

This is not news. Everybody knows prisons are horrible places with corrupt and sadistic corrections officers. It has always been so for decades, and the fix is in, so there is no way to change it.

I don’t know what jail was like when they wrote that ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ clause, but there is no doubt now that putting a man in jail is cruel and unusual punishment. Does a guy who swipes you iPhone on the street deserve one to three years of regular beatings and daily psychological torture? That’s why I propose a radical new three tiered penal system.

For simple theft, conversion, or destruction of property – full restitution plus a punitive fine.

For violent crimes such as assault or armed robbery – public flogging. Better one beating in the public square than years of daily beatings and the psychological torture inherent in the prison system. Besides, the public nature of the beating will act as a deterrent to other would-be ne’er-do-wells.

For murder, kidnapping, or rape – execution.

Prison should be done away with altogether.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: What to do about dangerous criminals...

Well, the first step would be to develop a system that accurately identifies those who are too dangerous to be out in public.

The current system seems to convict a fuckton of innocent people, and then lump the possible-monsters in with guys who smoked pot in the wrong place.

I find it frightening how the common attitude is that convicts deserve their time, and yet we’ve seen evidence that the justice system is weighted heavily through lying cops and collusive judges towards securing convictions.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: What to do about dangerous criminals...

I agree. I’m certainly not saying that most people in prison are too dangerous to be out, and we certainly need to fix that whole mess. But that’s a different issue. I was asking something very specific and a bit academic: if the courts never sentenced inappropriate people to prison and we got rid of prisons, what would we do with the dangerous people?

“I find it frightening how the common attitude is that convicts deserve their time”

I hope that you don’t think that I’m one of the people with that attitude. I meant to imply no such thing.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 What to do about dangerous criminals...

I hope that you don’t think that I’m one of the people with that attitude. I meant to imply no such thing.

Heh, no. Folks here on the Techdirt forums are more savvy than most, but in debates regarding treatment of prisoners, even locally, I’ve seen the “but they’re criminals” argument surface. To be fair, I don’t have any surveys handy to give us statistics regarding opinions.

I think part of the problem is that we really don’t know what to do with law-breakers. Killing them is obviously harsh. Imprisoning them becomes harsh no matter our original intentions. Our reform and treatment practices are still too young, and untrusted.

We might finally have the technology for house arrest.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 What to do about dangerous criminals...

I think a huge part of the problem is that we don’t really have a clear idea of what prison is supposed to be for. I remember when we had a long, emotional public debate about this issue. Some people said “rehabilitation” and some said “punishment”. The debate never got settled, really. People just dropped the issue and moved on. What prison is like, and who you send there, changes a lot based on what the point is.

Personally, I’d like to see prison not as punishment, but as the place we put people who are too dangerous to be out and about. People who are not dangerous should not be sent to prison. There are plenty of alternate ways of rehabilitating and/or punishing people that would be at least as effective (an admittedly low bar), would be a lot less expensive, and would be less likely to make dangerous criminals out of people who broke the law but aren’t a public threat.

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