Inquiry cites 'culture of violence' against teen inmates at Rikers Island

Inquiry cites 'culture of violence' against teen inmates at Rikers Island
"Rikers Island is a broken institution," a U.S. attorney said. "It is a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort." (Julie Jacobson / Associated Press)

A federal civil rights investigation concluded that adolescent male inmates at Rikers Island endured a "culture of violence" in one of New York's most historic and congested detention centers, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan announced Monday.

The findings highlighted more than a dozen brutality cases, including guards beating young prisoners with radios, batons and broomsticks, slamming them into walls, and often using aggression in isolated corners away from surveillance cameras.


"Simply put, Rikers is a dangerous place for adolescents and a pervasive climate of fear exists," according to a report from Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

The findings documented 1,050 cases of young prisoners injured during each of the last two years. In nearly half of last year's incidents, the inmate required emergency medical care.

Investigators said corrections officers resorted to "headshots" against juveniles, hit youths in the head or face "too frequently," struck them as "punishment or retribution," and created specialized response teams that became "particularly brutal." A significant number of the youths were pretrial detainees with severe mental issues.

Adolescent inmates were held in solitary "for weeks and sometimes months at a time," with up to 20% of the young prisoners in segregation on any given day last year, the report found.

"Rikers Island is a broken institution," 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."

He said that at the three Rikers Island facilities that house adolescent males, "a culture of violence endures even while a code of silence prevails."

A separate 79-page report said a "pattern and practice of excessive force and violence" violated the constitutional rights of teenage male inmates.

The findings were forwarded to Mayor Bill de Blasio and other top city officials, along with a litany of recommendations for cleaning up the juvenile section of the city's main prison complex, located on a 413-acre island in the East River.

Allegations of abuse go back at least two decades, when an officer created an enforcement gang of teenage prisoners called "the Program" and let them beat fellow teenage inmates in order to help control the inmate population.

The mayor has pledged to improve conditions at the prison. Earlier this year, he brought in a reform-minded corrections supervisor to run the complex.

In Washington, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said federal authorities hope to work closely with New York City to clean up Rikers Island. The key challenge, he said, will be to "reform practices that are unfair and unjust" and ensure that it is not just a place to "warehouse and forget" young offenders.

Twitter: @Rick SerranoLAT