World & Nation

U.S. joins lawsuit to force reforms at New York’s Rikers Island jail

Rikers Island
Rikers Island jail complex in New York.
(Bebeto Matthews / Associated Press)

Inmate A was kicked in the face and ribs and had Mace spritzed in his eyes. Inmate B was pummeled in the head. Inmate C suffered a broken nose, and Inmate D sustained a skull fracture.

All four were between the ages of 16 and 18, and on Thursday, the Justice Department said the abuse meted out to them and to other young inmates in New York’s Rikers Island jail warranted federal intervention to speed up reforms long promised but slow to be realized.

The U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, announced that Justice Department officials had joined a class-action lawsuit to force change in the way New York handles its youngest inmates. The move sent a message that federal prosecutors were not satisfied with the pace of reform undertaken by the city since August, when Justice Department officials released a damning report describing a “culture of violence” at Rikers, the city’s main jail.

The August report followed an investigation that documented hundreds of cases of young inmates injured during each of the two years researched, starting in July 2012. It recommended that Mayor Bill de Blasio and city officials undertake 70 specific measures, including increasing cameras in adolescent areas of jails to better monitor their treatment and ending punitive solitary confinement for most adolescents.


Since then, Bharara said the city had “done great things,” but the problems had been going on for decades and more needed to be done. “We are understandably quite impatient, and we’d like things to get done at a quicker pace,” Bharara said. “We think things can go faster.”

In court papers, Justice Department officials announced their intention to join the class-action lawsuit Nunez vs. City of New York, which was filed in 2012 and accuses the city’s Department of Corrections of a pattern of unnecessary and excessive force against inmates.

The move follows De Blasio’s announcement Wednesday that the city had ended punitive isolation for adolescent inmates. When he took office in January, there were 91 inmates younger than 18 in isolation. As of Dec. 4, De Blasio said, that practice had ended.

The number of adolescents housed at Rikers averaged 489 a day in fiscal year 2014, a drop from 682 in 2013 and 791 in 2012, the city said. But Justice Department officials say the adolescent population is difficult to handle because about 51% suffer from some form of mental illness.


Twitter: @tinasusman

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