A much-anticipated investigative report by the Justice Department has uncovered what amounted to a chamber of horrors at Rikers Island, where teenagers were beaten and battered for minor infractions by correction officers who acted without fear of discovery or punishment by senior officials. The report, released on August 4 by Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, documents “a deep-seated culture of violence” that demands immediate remedial action by New York City, which is now at risk of facing a federal lawsuit if it does not take the steps outlined in the report — which wisely calls for removing adolescents from the jail complex altogether.
The investigation, which focused mainly on conduct from 2011 through 2013, said that the “number of injuries sustained by adolescents is staggering ” and that the youths were in constant danger of physical harm even when they presented no risk to the system or safety of the staff. Nearly 44 percent of the adolescent male population in custody as of October 2012 had been subjected to the use of force by the correctional staff.
Further, the report said, force was routinely used not so much to keep order but for the express purpose of “inflicting injuries and pain.”
“Inmates are beaten as a form of punishment, sometimes in apparent retribution for some perceived disrespectful conduct,” it said, adding: “Correction officers improperly use injurious force in response to refusals to follow orders, verbal taunts, or insults, even when the inmate presents no threat to the safety or security of staff or other inmates.” Correction officers “frequently continue to strike inmates after they are clearly under control and effectively restrained, often attempting to justify their actions later by reporting that the inmate continued to resist.”
Officers who had made up their minds to inflict punishment carried out the beatings in areas they knew to be free of security cameras. The report also noted that “an astonishing number of incidents” took place in school areas, classrooms and hallways. Staff members who committed these heinous acts deserve to be prosecuted.
A departmental code of silence aided and abetted this brutal regime and shielded its practitioners from discovery and official rebuke. A departmental directive requiring staff who use or witness force — or who have been alleged to employ or witness force — to prepare a written report on the incident “prior to leaving the facility unless medically unable to do so” appears to have been “frequently and intentionally ignored.” In one instance in 2012, for example, it took an officer three months to file a memo on a beating incident. The investigating officers found the beating justified and made no mention of the officer’s failure to submit the report contemporaneously.
The report rightly calls for a complete overhaul in departmental operations. It recommends, for example, that adolescents be removed from Rikers Island, which houses mainly adults, and placed in a facility elsewhere. It insists that the city improve officer training, and that the procedures be followed for promptly and accurately reporting force incidents.
Most important, it calls on the city to completely reform the institutional culture of the jail system to ensure that violence is no longer tolerated. The United States attorney will need to stay engaged until these goals are met.