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DOJ Probe Reveals Teen Rights are Frequently Violated at Rikers Island

Aug 7, 2014

On Monday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) revealed a condemning multiyear investigation showing that the New York City’s Rikers Island correctional facilities have a “pattern and practice of conduct … that violates the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates,” After investigating the practices and conduct by the city’s Department of Correction from 2011 to 2013, the DOH found a “deep-seated culture of violence” that was “pervasive throughout the adolescent facilities at Rikers.”

DOC staff regularly used force “not as a last resort but instead as a means to control the adolescent population and punish disorderly or disrespectful behavior.” the 79-page DOJ report found. According to the report, there were 517 instances where staff used force in 2012, leading to 1,059 injuries. The following year, 1,057 injuries were caused by 565 instances of use of force by staff. “These are extraordinary figures, considering that the average daily adolescent population at Rikers was only 682 in FY 2013 and 791 in FY 2012," the report stated.

The probe also showed that “correction officers resort to ‘headshots,’ or blows to an inmate’s head or facial area, too frequently.” During its investigation, the DOJ found 64 incidents where an adolescent inmate suffered a blow to the face or head. In one highlighted case, an inmate was punched in the facial area and required sutures. Allegedly, the inmate had spit in an officer's face after refusing to sweep up debris. The report noted that “there was no video surveillance of the incident.”

“The extremely high rates of violence and excessive use of solitary confinement for adolescent males uncovered by this investigation are inappropriate and unacceptable,” said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. “When it comes to our young people, incarceration is used to deter, punish and ultimately rehabilitate, not merely to warehouse and forget.”

Recently, Rikers Island has been under greater scrutiny due to a number of issues, according to Aljazeera America; one inmate was allegedly beaten to death by a corrections officer. City officials paid $2.75 million to the inmate's family in July to settle the allegations. A multimillion dollar lawsuit was also filed in May by a mother whose mentally ill homeless veteran son was found dead in a 100-degree cell at Rikers Island.

In an effort to reform Rikers Island, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed Joseph Ponte as commissioner of the DOC earlier this year. Ponte, who formerly served as commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections, stated "We are pursuing a number of systemwide initiatives to make jails safer, including rewriting our use of force policy to bring it into the 21st century and accelerating the installation of more security cameras in facilities."

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