- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2014

Corrections officers used excessive force to control adolescent inmates at a major New York City prison, including inflicting wounds that required medical treatment, a Justice Department investigation concluded Monday.

Rikers Island corrections officers hit inmates in the face or head, and beat prisoners who were not resisting, Justice Department investigators reported, adding that the abuse often took place in areas not covered by surveillance cameras.

The results were broken jaws, arm and leg bone fractures and cuts that required stitches, among other injuries, the agency’s report said.

“The extremely high rates of violence and excessive use of solitary confinement for adolescent males uncovered by this investigation are inappropriate and unacceptable,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Monday in a statement.

Mr. Holder said the Justice Department and New York City officials must work to ensure that “incarceration is used to deter, punish, and ultimately rehabilitate, not merely to warehouse and forget.”

The Justice Department’s two-year investigation uncovered many specific examples of violence that occurred in the jail. For example, one inmate on his way to lunch got into a heated argument with a corrections officer captain. It culminated with the captain throwing out the inmate’s bag of chips, and the inmate cursing the officer.

Upon the inmate’s return to the school classroom area — where there are no cameras — the captain ordered three other guards to mace and then beat the inmate, kicking him in the face and ribs. The inmate was not taken for medical treatment until three hours later, and an internal prison system review decided the use of force was justified.

In 2012 and 2013, investigators found more than 1,000 inmate injuries at Rikers Island annually resulting from excessive use of force by corrections officers.

Nearly half of all inmates suffered injuries at some point in their stay in the prison, the report said. In 2013 alone, emergency medical services for adolescent detainees were needed 459 times, though some of those may have been due to fights among the inmates.

The Justice Department report said investigators found “a pattern and practice of conduct at Rikers Island that violates the rights of adolescents.”

“Simply put, Rikers is a dangerous place for adolescents and a pervasive climate of fear exists,” the report said.

Commissioner Joseph Ponte — who became the city’s Department of Corrections leader in April — will likely have his tenure judged by many in New York based on how he addresses the problems at Rikers Island, where several adult inmates have recently died due to abuse or negligence.

“I have made it clear that excessive use of force, unnecessary or unwarranted use of punitive segregation and corruption of any kind are absolutely unacceptable, and will not be tolerated under my watch,” Mr. Ponte said in a press release Monday.

Investigators said there was little intervention or oversight by senior management, adding that corrections officials failed to “address the extraordinarily high levels of violence.”

Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said the conditions seemed “more inspired by ‘Lord of the Flies’ than any legitimate philosophy of humane detention.”

“For adolescents, Rikers Island is a broken institution,” Mr. Bharara said. “It is a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort; where verbal insults are repaid with physical injuries; where beatings are routine while accountability is rare; and where a culture of violence endures even while a code of silence prevails.”

Investigators also found that solitary confinement was often used excessively as a punishment, including for inmates who were mentally ill or who were placed in confinement for months at a time for minor infractions.

On any given day, 15 to 25 percent of the inmate population was being held in solitary confinement, often for months at a time for non-violent infractions, the report said.



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