The Weak Pursuit of Accountability for Rikers Island’s ‘Culture of Brutality’


The New York Times’ reporting work on Rikers Island is starting to make some government officials squirm. But at the end of the day, emerging punishments and accountability measures seem to fall painfully short of addressing the devolving health and safety situation there.

The Times first covered the rise in assaults on civilian employees working at the facility back in May, and then followed up in July with a brutal portrayal of life for its prisoners.

Now the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has announced that it will fine private prison healthcare provider Corizon Health Services, Inc. $75,000 — “the highest level of censure by the federal Labor Department […] for failing to protect employees from violence at the jail complex.”

This is certainly welcome news. The violence that jail employees suffer is inexcusable and deserves to be addressed with force. Private contractors, which have been found to understaff and under-train personnel, put their employees at additional risk in order to cut costs. Corizon does not appear to be an exceptional case in this regard, as the Times found that “attacks by inmates against Corizon employees […] jumped from eight in 2011 to 39 in 2013 […] and six assaults on employees occurred between Feb. 11 and May 14 this year.”

However, I don’t think it’s enough. Corizon makes about $1.4 billion in profit each year from its prisoner healthcare services. They were also given 15 days to stop the assaults against their employees and a handful of ‘recommendations’ by the department– ie, no clear disincentive to change their behavior. Why hasn’t the government placed all of their contracts under review and in jeopardy of cancellation?

After all, Corizon does not exactly have a promising track record. One of their doctors was found to have sexually assaulted 20 prisoners in New Mexico, and one of their nurses has been “accused of contaminating vials of insulin at three units at the ASPC-Lewis prison, potentially exposing two dozen prisoners to HIV or hepatitis,” to name a few. $75,000 alone is not going to cut it.

Meanwhile, relief for prisoners is moving slowly and in piecemeal fashion. Attorney General Eric Holder and US Attorney for the Southern District of NY Preet Bharara announced the completion of a study on conditions facing the prison’s juvenile inmates, but only said it looked forward to “engaging in discussions with the City to make system-wide changes.”

Again, an important step forward, but one that both lacks teeth and is narrow in focus.

The Times wrote that their report “helps lay bare the culture of brutality on the island and makes clear that it is inmates with mental illnesses who absorb the overwhelming brunt of the violence.” Clearly, we need to expect more accountability than a measly fine and a blustery government study. Until there’s serious changes made at Rikers towards eliminating that ‘culture of brutality,’ I don’t see any end in sight.

Brian Sonenstein
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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein is a Berkeley-based writer, activist and former Campaign Director and Associate Publisher for Learn more at
Brian Sonenstein
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