In an extraordinary rebuke of the New York City Department of Correction, the federal government said on Monday that the department had systematically violated the civil rights of male teenagers held at Rikers Island by failing to protect them from the rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force by correction officers.
The office of Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, released its findings in a graphic 79-page report that described a “deep-seated culture of violence” against youthful inmates at the jail complex, perpetrated by guards who operated with little fear of punishment.
The report, addressed to Mayor Bill de Blasio and two other senior city officials, singled out for blame a “powerful code of silence” among the Rikers staff, along with a virtually useless system for investigating attacks by guards. The result was a “staggering” number of injuries among youthful inmates, the report said.
Although the federal investigation focused only on the three Rikers jails that house male inmates aged 16 to 18, the report said the problems that were identified “may exist in equal measure” in the complex’s seven other jails for adult men and women.
In just one measure of the extent of the violence, the investigation found that nearly 44 percent of the adolescent male population in custody as of October 2012 had been subjected to a use of force by staff members at least once.
Correction officers struck adolescents in the head and face at “an alarming rate” as punishment, even when inmates posed no threat; officers took inmates to isolated areas for beatings out of view of video cameras; and many inmates were so afraid of the violence that they asked, for their own protection, to go to solitary confinement, the report said.
Officers were rarely punished, the report said, even with strong evidence of egregious violations. Investigations, when they occurred, were often superficial, and incident reports were frequently incomplete, misleading or intentionally falsified.
Among more than a dozen specific cases of brutality detailed in the report was one in which correction officers assaulted four inmates for several minutes, beating them with radios, batons and broomsticks, and slamming their heads against walls. Another inmate sustained a skull fracture and was left with the imprint of a boot on his back from an assault involving multiple officers. In another case, a young man was taken from a classroom after falling asleep during a lecture and was beaten severely. Teachers heard him screaming and crying for his mother.
“For adolescent inmates, Rikers Island is broken,” Mr. Bharara said at a news conference announcing the findings. “It is a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort, a place where verbal insults are repaid with physical injuries, where beatings are routine while accountability is rare.”
The federal investigation was conducted by the civil division of the United States attorney’s office. Officers involved in specific incidents were not identified by name. But the report listed more than 10 pages of remedial measures, and it warned that if the city did not work cooperatively to develop new policies and procedures, the Justice Department could bring a federal lawsuit asking a judge to order the imposition of remedies. Mr. Bharara said the city had 49 days to respond to the findings.
Joseph Ponte, the city’s new correction commissioner, said in a statement that his agency had “cooperated fully” with the Justice Department, and would work with it to carry out whatever changes were “appropriate and feasible.”
The report, which covers 2011 through the end of 2013, touched on many of the same issues raised in an investigation by The New York Times into violence by guards at Rikers, particularly against inmates with mental illnesses, published last month.
The Times article documented 129 cases in which inmates of all ages were seriously injured last year in altercations with correction officers, including several attacks that were also singled out in the report.
New York is one of just two states in the country that automatically charge people aged 16 to 18 as adults. That population, which averages close to 500 inmates at Rikers Island, is among the most difficult at the jail complex, the report said. In the 2013 fiscal year, about 51 percent received a mental illness diagnosis, compared with about 38 percent for the overall population. And nearly two-thirds were charged with felonies.
Even so, the report found that adolescents were overseen by the least experienced correctional staff members, who, often out of frustration or malice, lashed out violently against them. The violence against teenage inmates has steadily increased year by year, the report found. In the 2013 fiscal year alone, inmates younger than 18 sustained 1,057 injuries in 565 reported uses of force by correctional staff members.
Moreover, the report found, many violent episodes go unreported.
Officers and supervisors used coded phrases like “hold it down” to pressure inmates into not reporting beatings. “Inmates who refuse to ‘hold it down’ risk retaliation from officers in the form of additional physical violence and disciplinary sanctions,” the report said.
One inmate said that he was continually harassed by the correctional staff after reporting that he was raped by a guard and that he was warned by guards not to speak about the episode in an interview with a consultant on the investigation.
The report also found that civilian staff members, including doctors and teachers, also failed to report abuse and faced retaliation when they did.
One teacher told an investigator that when abuse occurs, civilian employees know “they should turn their head away, so that they don’t witness anything.”
Even when abuse was reported, the report found, the investigations typically went nowhere. The federal inquiry was highly critical of the Correction Department’s investigative division, which is overseen by Florence Finkle. The report described the investigative division as overwhelmed, understaffed and reliant on archaic paper-based record keeping. Investigations, which are supposed to take up to five months to complete, often take more than a year.
There is also a substantial bias in favor of correction officer testimony even in cases when evidence clearly indicates a guard is lying, the investigation found. And when guards are disciplined, the punishment is rarely severe. Most are sent to counseling or “retraining,” the report found. Sometimes, punishments recommended by supervisors are overruled by those higher in the chain of command.
In one January 2012 episode, a correction officer became incensed after an inmate splashed her with a liquid and began punching him in the face after he had been restrained by other guards. A captain ordered her to stop, and she punched another officer who tried to pull her off the inmate. An investigating captain later concluded that the officer’s use of force was “not necessary, inappropriate and excessive.” But a superior, backed by the investigative division, overruled the captain, concluding that the use of force was necessary. The consultant to the investigation labeled the finding “astonishing.”
The report found one officer had been involved in 76 uses of force over a six-year period and had been disciplined only once.
Because the Correction Department fails to properly investigate and hold the staff accountable, the report found, “a culture of excessive force persists, where correction officers physically abuse adolescent inmates with the expectation that they will face little or no consequences for their unlawful conduct.”
Norman Seabrook, the president of the correction officers’ union, said he welcomed some of the report’s suggestions for reform. But he defended guards’ responding forcibly against inmates who became aggressive.
“There may be a few that react with what you might think is excessive force, but in defense of an officer being assaulted by an inmate, a correction officer must use whatever force is necessary to terminate the assault,” he said in a statement.
The report pointed out that the new correction commissioner, Mr. Ponte, had only recently assumed his position and “was not present when the misconduct” found by the investigation had occurred. Mr. Ponte noted in a statement that since he took office in April there had been a 39 percent drop in uses of force by guards against adolescents, in part to better recruiting and screening of the staff. He said the department has been “cooperating fully” with the inquiry.
“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.
The report acknowledged the department had undertaken steps to stem the violence. But none of these measures, the report said, address the core problems: abuse by correction officers and a lack of accountability.
In one case documented in the report, a correction officer wrapped metal handcuffs around her hand and punched an inmate in the ribs after he had fallen asleep during a class, according to witnesses. The inmate told investigators that when he yelled an obscenity, the officer pulled him out of class and began to beat him. She was joined by other officers who kicked him while he was sprawled on the floor. The inmate said one officer sprayed pepper stray directly in his eye from about an inch away.
In their reports, the officers offered contradictory versions of what happened, the investigations found. But all concluded that the level of force that was used was appropriate.
One of the teachers interviewed said he heard “thumping” and “screaming” during the altercation and said he heard the inmate “crying and screaming for his mother.”
When he looked out the door after the episode, the teacher reported that he “saw blood and saliva on the floor.”