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.