Federal investigations finds young inmates at Rikers subject to excessive force

rikers island
A spokesman for the city’s Law Department on Monday confirmed the settlement with the estate of Ronald Spear, 52, who died in December 2012 at the city’s Rikers Island jail.
Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A federal investigation found that the city’s Department of Corrections fails to protect young inmates held at Rikers Island.

In a letter addressed to Corrections Commissioner Joe Ponte, city attorney Zachary Carter and Mayor Bill de Blasio, federal prosecutors allege that “a deep-seated culture of violence is pervasive throughout the adolescent facilities at Rikers,” and that officers rely too much on force and what amounts to solitary confinement for young offenders.

Preet Bharara, United States attorney for New York’s Southern District, argued on Monday that mistreatment of young inmates violated Constitutional protections from cruel and unusual punishment and violated due process.

Bharara described the conditions for young men at Rikers more like “Lord of the Flies” than the safe, humane detention center they’re entitled to.

“These young men, automatically charged as adults despite their age under New York law, may be on an island and out of sight, but they can no longer remain out of mind,” he added.

Among the charges in the report are allegations that corrections officers use force to punish inmates, even for verbal disputes, and that officers have justified force by shouting “stop resisting” at already subdued inmates.

Bharara also said officers segregate inmates, including those with mental health issues, too frequently and for too long, while often failing to train on or report use of force.

The 79-page report details individual instances between 2011 and 2013, before de Blasio appointed Commissioner Ponte in March.

Ponte, who de Blasio hailed as a key figure in reducing use of solitary confinement at his last gig in Maine, is already under pressure to investigate how individuals with mental health issues are treated at Rikers after multiple reports of mistreatment by officers came to light recently.

Neither the de Blasio administration nor the Department of Corrections were immediately available for comment on the report.

Norman Seabrook, president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association admitted in a statement that the department suffered from mismanagement for years and that the union welcomes some of Bharara’s suggestions while defending members’ discretion to use force.

“There may be a few that react with what you might think is excessive force,” Seabrook wrote, “but in defense of an officer being assaulted by an inmate, a correction officer must use whatever force is necessary to terminate the assault.”

Follow Chester Jesus Soria on Twitter @chestersoria


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