New York City Enters Settlement With Feds Over Rikers Island Brutality

New York City and the Department of Justice settled a 2012 class action lawsuit this week brought by the Legal Aid Society (Nunez v City of New York), alleging rampant inmate abuse on Rikers Island. The Nunez lawsuit is just one of many to have detailed the horrific conditions facing inmates in NYC jails and underscores the pervasive brutality and impunity with which the city’s corrections officers have traditionally operated.

In December of last year, Mayor Bill De Blasio’s Rikers Island task force introduced a collection of proposals he argued would make the city a progressive leader in criminal justice reform. Those proposals included ending solitary confinement for inmates under 21 (contingent on funding and programming by 2016), curbing punitive segregation for inmates with a history of mental illness, implementing thousands of surveillance cameras, rekindling the Department of Correction’s (DOC) long-dormant recruitment program and beefing up oversight and investigative measures aimed at policing the behavior of guards. At the beginning of this year, the city also implemented a multi-million dollar super-solitary unit known as the Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit (ESHU) and announced plans to restrict inmate visitation, which were met with vehement protest from the community.

The majority of the terms of the settlement mirror proposals from the De Blasio task force. And while some of these reforms would qualify as improvements of the status quo, I believe the package will ultimately fall far short of the city’s goal of ending the abusive environment on Rikers and achieving one of those most progressive criminal justice systems in the country. The reforms are largely empty gestures towards law enforcement accountability we see taking place elsewhere in the country, or represent policies and procedures that should shock each and every one of us for not having existed before; their implementation  should not impress us now. Really, this situation should lead us to question whether the department can be trusted to play a constructive role in the city’s justice apparatus.

The following analysis is based on the summary of the agreement made available on the Department of Justice website.

Monitor: Steve J. Martin

The agreement calls for the establishment of an independent Monitor to oversee the implementation of the terms of the settlement. According to the NY Law Journal, Steve J. Martin is a former corrections officer and “prison reform expert” out of Oklahoma who has been involved in lawsuits out of NYC jails for over two decades.

It is worth noting that Martin’s selection as Monitor was praised by the president of the powerful Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association Norman Seabrook, who believes “Martin will treat his roughly 9,200 members even-handedly—and conclude that the vast majority of guards are not responsible for excessive violence that has been the target of critics.”

Wishful thinking or not, Seabrook is not the only person quoted in the article who believes Martin will be “balanced” in his oversight of guard-on-inmate brutality.

Use of Force & Officer Oversight

The Department of Corrections will be required to create a new Use of Force policy that will “set forth explicit prohibitions regarding the use of certain categories of force, and provide correction officers with clear direction on when and how force may be used.”

Officers will be required to report use of force incidents, and DOC investigations into those reports will be “thorough, timely and objective.” DOC will “take all necessary steps to impose appropriate and meaningful discipline, up to and including termination,” for officers found to be in violation of the policy.

An “early warning system” will be devised to identify and discipline officers “whose conduct may warrant corrective actions,” as well as analyze data to help pinpoint “staff members who are at risk of engaging in serious misconduct absent appropriate intervention or services by DOC.” It is unclear what this system will look like or how it will work.

However welcome these changes may be, they are far from new or innovative. NYC jails have always had Use of Force policies and reporting requirements. The problem is they’ve rarely been enforced. It is unclear how the mere existence of these policies will force the cultural shift necessary for accountability to take place in the DOC — especially when there are still leaders within the department who were promoted after allegedly suppressing numbers on violent incidents involving inmates.


The Department of Corrections will also be required to beef up the presence of video recording technology throughout the facility. DOC will be expected to install at least 7,800 additional cameras on a rolling basis — at least 25% of which must be installed by July 1, 2016. At minimum, 75% of these thousands of cameras must be installed one year from now, and DOC will prioritize placement in facilities with “the most significant levels of violence.” It will preserve video footage of use of force incidents and inmate-on-inmate violence for four years.

Jumping on the growing bandwagon taking place in police departments around the country including the NYPD, DOC will be testing body cameras for use “by certain corrections officers.” This program will be evaluated in one year to determine if it should be expanded.

DOC will also force staff to use handheld video cameras to “record, among other things, responses to use of force incidents, cell extractions, and most living quarter searches, except when safety or security concerns require an immediate response that would preclude waiting for the recording requirement.” It will require recordings to be made in full and “any break in the recording be explained.”

Finally, the city will be required to introduce “enhanced computerized tracking systems” to monitor all the data on use of force incidents, investigations and disciplinary actions. The hope is that analyzing this data will help identify patterns that can inform inmate supervision and the oversight of officers. The goal is to set up a comprehensive system by the end of next year that will “track data relating to incidents involving correction officers in a centralized manner.”

While more cameras can be a good thing, they are far from a silver bullet. There are well-documented problems with relying on body cameras and other surveillance technology in law enforcement. For example, officers can simply turn their cameras off, or say they forgot to turn them on in the first place. In more than a few cases, the presence of video evidence doesn’t even change the outcome of proceedings.

Recruitment & Training

Perhaps one of the most shocking and embarrassing aspects of the DOC to be uncovered in investigations over the past two years has been that the department has had virtually no recruitment program and was not conducting background checks on new-hires for nearly a decade. DOC hires were found to have criminal ties, sometimes with people being held on Rikers Island. Others were found to have failed psychological exams and flunked the NYPD test, only to find employment in the city’s jails. Several have been found smuggling contraband to inmates while still others have been charged with extreme brutality against and deadly indifference toward inmates.

To this end, the DOC will develop a “comprehensive staff recruitment program to attract well-qualified applicants and will employ an objective process to select and hire staff.” This includes actually performing background checks for things as basic as making sure new hires aren’t known gang members or have relationships with prisoners on Rikers. The DOC will be made to exercise extra precaution when hiring supervisors and staff for special units like the ESHU and mental health segregation — including an analysis of prior use of force incidents. DOC will also implement additional and more-focused trainings on issues like use of force, crisis intervention and defensive tactics.

Finally, the settlement creates some space for whistleblowers at the DOC. It calls for the establishment of an “anonymous reporting system” to report use of force violations, and the DOC is instructed to “promptly notifty” the US Attorney’s Office of “any use of force incident where correction staff conduct appears to be criminal in nature.”

It’s great to see support for the development of a whistleblower culture at the DOC. But as anyone who has followed whistleblowing cases for the past few years likely knows, the existence of so-called “proper channels” does not preclude the bureaucratic indifference or threat of retaliation that often keeps dissidents quiet.

Incarcerated Children

The agreement also calls for additional reforms aimed at juvenile prisoners. They include specialized programming “to minimize idleness,” capping inmate-to-staff ratios, conducting daily inspections of youth housing, and developing an “age-appropriate classification system” for inmates under the age of 18.

It also calls for moving young inmates to “secure alternative housing” if they express concerns for their safety. It requires the adoption of the Direct Supervision Model, in which staff frequently and informally engage inmates in conversation and intervene in incidents early on to avoid escalation. There will be at least 32 hours of training involved in this program.

The DOC will be required to “timely report and thoroughly investigate all allegations of sexual assault involving young inmates” and train officers in youth housing in conflict resolution and crisis intervention — especially with regards to inmates suffering from mental illness.

With regards to the use of solitary confinement against children, the settlement seems not to acknowledge efforts by the Board of Correction to eliminate isolation among inmates aged 16-21, focusing instead on those under 18. While inmates under 18 will not be placed in solitary, inmates that are 18-years-old will be given “a continuum of alternatives.” DOC will not be permitted to use isolation against “any 18-year-old inmate with a serious mental illness,” placing them in solitary only after “a mental health care professional determines that confinement does not present a substantial risk of serious harm to the inmate.” The department will also be made to monitor the physical and mental health of any 18-year-old in solitary. DOC will maintain an “outside consultant” to independently review DOC infraction processes and procedures concerning minors.

Perhaps the most interesting item in the agreement is the plan to develop an “alternative housing site” for young inmates that “will make best efforts to identify an alternative site not located on Rikers Island.” The idea is to create housing that will be easier for family members to visit, increase safety and provide more adequate recreation and programing.

The handling of the youth prisoner dilemma on Rikers Island is perfectly emblamatic of how this “reform program” completely misses the mark. Rather than invest in the institutionalization and refinment of caging children, why not spend that money on developing programs and interventions in their communities instead? Why remove them from their communities at all? The acknowledgement that personal connection is important (made by plans to relocate youth inmates to housing more easily visited and outside of the jail atmosphere) shows that city leaders know jailing kids isn’t working, but lack the resolve to take that extra step and end youth detention altogether.

NYC: Latest Experiment in Carceral Liberalism

After months of platitudes on justice and transparency and accountability from the highest levels of city and federal government, after numerous packed and boisterous board meetings and reports and lawsuits, after promises to make New York City a pillar of progressive criminal justice, what we have been left with is the latest installment of the toxic “carceral Liberalism” sweeping the nation — that is, the drive to try to make prisons more “comfortable” and humane, and less offensive to the sensibilities of the public, instead of looking beyond their use completely.

The absolute madness of this is already becoming apparent. One Rikers reform involved giving mental health workers a greater role in decisions regarding the placement of an inmate in solitary confinement. City officials believed that jail guards had too much power to determine who could and could not be isolated, which they abused, and that placing a health professional in the equation would divert many inmates from the hole. But a recently released report actually argues that having medical staff make any such decision on punitive segregation is a natural violation of their Hippocratic oath to “do no harm.”

Just before that report, an investigation into the first few months of the ESHU found that officers failed to keep complete records and medical staff were delivering inadequate medical care. Despite a new facility, reformed protocols and newly trained staff, it was the same old problems at the same old DOC. Why should we trust the department to behave any differently now?

If NYC really wanted to take the lead in progressive criminal justice reform, it would have invested all of this time, energy and resources into looking beyond jails. The city has the opportunity now to devised new ways to enforce laws and pursue accountability by giving communities the resources and autonomy they need instead of coercing them and tearing them apart. Right now, it is ignoring that opportunity in what seems to be an effort to put this all behind them as quickly as possible.

At bare minimum, the city could have ended youth detention and the isolation of all inmates, but instead it has chosen to move youth detention and refine the use of isolation. It has asked for time and patience for the reforms to take hold, but NYC inmates (or those that have survived the clutches of Rikers) have waited far, far too long already.  This is not just an unacceptable strategy; it’s an insult to the dignity and intelligence of all New Yorkers.

Rikers needs a wrecking ball, not a wrench; the place should be shuttered, not renovated.  Until the city abandons its quest to fix its jails in favor of an effort to replace them with institutions focused on reducing — and not producing — harm, my guess is we will be left to “wait and see” until the next round of horrific reports are released, followed by more task forces, investigations and piecemeal reforms, ad infinitum.

Montana legislature debuts bill prohibiting solitary confinement for minors, seriously mentally ill

A bill introduced in the Montana House of Representatives this week would curb the use of isolation in state prisons. The Montana Solitary Confinement Reform Act (or House Bill 490) was introduced by Democrat Jenny Eck and would ban solitary confinement for people under the age of 18 and those with severe mental illness. It would also introduce due process and appeal measures for inmates facing solitary and require weekly mental health evaluations for isolated inmates.

Over much of the past decade, prisoners in Montana have endured anguish and abuse in the state’s isolation units. In 2012, Montana reached a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the case of a mentally ill juvenile detainee named Raistlen Katka. Katka was placed in solitary confinement for damaging prison property when he was just 17. The lawsuit stated he was “so traumatized by his deplorable treatment in the Montana State Prison that he twice attempted to kill himself by biting through the skin on his wrist to puncture a vein.” Katka later explained to a judge, “My thought process was if I don’t die, at least I’ll get out of my cell for 30 seconds.”

In the Katka settlement, Montana agreed to limit the amount of time young prisoners could spend in solitary confinement to 72 hours without additional approval. The state agreed to improve its treatment of mentally ill inmates in isolation as well.

But the situation had hardly improved one year after Katka. In a letter sent to Montana state officials, the ACLU and Disability Rights Montana (DRM) detailed the findings of a December 2013 investigation into the conditions facing mentally ill inmates in solitary, where they found that medication was routinely withheld from inmates and some were deliberately left undiagnosed by medical staff. They discovered mentally ill prisoners were being locked in isolation for extended periods of time — sometimes for a full 24 hours without exercise. Many of them were still deprived of basic necessities like proper food, clothing, bedding and human contact.

By April 2014, DRM announced it was suing Montana for the “cruel and unusual punishment” of its mentally ill prisoners, arguing their treatment violated the Constitution.

If this year’s HB490 is enacted, Montana state prisons would be required to put safeguards in place to stem this seemingly-uninhibited flow of inmates into its isolation units. Continue reading

In New York City, ending youth solitary confinement comes with a complicated price tag

Under Mayor de Blasio’s new preliminary budget, 282 correction officers would be brought on to oversee New York City’s juvenile prisoners as funding for staff and alternative programming doubles to $25.3 million in 2016 — the year NYC is scheduled to end solitary confinement for 18-21 year olds.

The mayor’s proposal, which arrives amid a federal lawsuit and several bombshell investigations concerning conditions in the city’s jails, also includes:

  • Funding for 6 new staff at the Department of Investigation to investigate “Department of Correction excessive use of force allegations and allegations of criminal conduct.”
  • A $1.8 million infusion to troubled private healthcare provider Corizon to provide additional medical and mental health staff for the new Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit (ESHU) for solitary confinement.
  • Expanding the hiring task force known as the Applicant Investigation Unit and re-establishing a dedicated recruitment unit in an effort to fight the epidemic corruption and abuse among newly-hired CO’s.
  • Provisions for 10 new corrections officers to monitor feeds of the new $15 million security camera network and 6 more CO’s for expanding the canine unit.
  • Significant collective bargaining increases for the officers’ unions

It’s important to note that last month, just before the city voted to ban solitary for prisoners 21 and under, and just after several successive months of mounting public pressure to reduce guard-on-inmate violence, the Board of Correction (BOC) amended its proposed rule change to include the condition that the youth solitary ban only take effect if ‘adequate funding for staff and alternative programming’ is available in 2016.

This was also the same vote that authorized the construction and staffing of the controversial $15 million ESHU, which shocked former prisoners, families and advocates when it was announced and led to protests at the BOC hearings and final vote.

The combination of nearly 300 more corrections officers, a boatload of funding and a new solitary unit has turned a well-intentioned effort to end youth prisoner abuse into a deepened commitment to youth incarceration and solitary confinement. This is hardly a fair compromise. As far as I can tell, no comparable effort or funding has been afforded to getting juvenile prisoners out and into programs, treatments and settings that might actually help them.

The New York City Council has yet to respond to the mayor’s budget, but if it were to meet these conditions, the corrections officers and the dues-collecting unions that represent them would arguably stand to gain more from these “reforms” than the city’s chronically victimized prisoners.

Former Louisiana Corrections Officer Argues 14 Year Old Prisoner ‘Consented’ to Being Raped

The age of consent in the state of Louisiana is 17. The girl was 14 at the time of the incident. This is textbook statutory rape.

Read the whole report if you can stomach it. But I think this quote from a local attorney and children’s advocate sums up the issue perfectly:

“To say that a 14-year-old mentally and emotionally distressed girl with a history of having been abused and neglected as a child should be found at fault for consenting to be raped by a male guard while in confinement at the hands of my local government, which is charged with the responsibility of keeping her safe, not only sets the cause of children’s advocacy back a hundred years, but I believe the parish government commits ‘documentary’ sexual assault against the child by taking this position in a public record.”

Continue reading

New York City Doesn’t Care About Young People

NYC city council held a hearing yesterday featuring department of corrections commissioner and fabled “reformer” Joseph Ponte.

It was cathartic to see some city council members confronting Ponte over the DOC’s utter failure to protect young prisoners on Rikers Island. In discussing the case of Kaleif Browder (a 16 year old boy who was wrongfully imprisoned and spent nearly 800 days in solitary confinement) city councilman Daniel Dromm (D) told Ponte that officials “subjected this child to torture. There’s no other way to put it.”

Nonetheless, Ponte seemed to be unmoved by the gravity of the situation. He continued to parrot his weak assortment of promises to reduce violence and phase out the use of solitary for a small number of the facility’s incarcerated children. Unfortunately, the “reforms” have more holes than swiss cheese, and are so weak as to suggest they would be more accurately described as ‘damage control.’

When confronted about his promotion of two Rikers officials to top positions, despite emerging evidence that their staff routinely underreported jail fights, Ponte never once hinted he would do the reasonable thing, which would be to review his decision in light of this new information. Instead, he pretty much tried to shrug it off: Continue reading

New Report Shows Juvenile, Mentally Ill Abuses Continue Under NYCDOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte

The Bronx Defenders recently put out a report on the use of solitary confinement at Rikers Island amid a growing number of reports of violence, abuse and mismanagement at the facility.

The study, titled Voices from the Box (PDF)surveyed 59 inmates between July 2013 and August 2014 and it confirms the horrifying and widespread use of solitary confinement against adolescent and mentally ill inmates.

Researchers found that half of Rikers prisoners in solitary were between the ages of 16 and 20, and 20% of them were teenagers. They also found that 72% of inmates in solitary were diagnosed with mental health issues, and “received grossly inadequate treatment” during isolation.

The United Nations believes that anything over a generous 15 days in isolation is tantamount to torture, yet the median number of days in confinement spent by Rikers inmates was 90. Many inmates spent over 23 hours a day in their cell. Continue reading

Damage Control Threatens Change at Rikers Island

On September 29th, the New York Times reported that the New York City Department of Corrections was eliminating solitary confinement for 16 and 17-year-old inmates at Rikers.

The department claimed it would be the “first round of changes” and “solitary confinement [would] be replaced by ‘alternative options, intermediate consequences for misbehavior and steps designed to pre-empt incidents from occurring.'”

New York City Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte

New York City Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte

While it’s fantastic news that these young inmates will no longer be subject to punitive segregation, the 16-17 year old age group at Rikers is a small portion of the population; only 300 of the 11,000 prisoners in the city’s jails would qualify for such leniency. The NYCDOC says there are 51 youths in solitary right now, but it’s unclear how many would see relief from this policy change.

It’s also great to hear the NYCDOC plans to replace solitary with ‘alternative options, intermediate consequences […] and steps designed to pre-empt incidents,’ however vague that may be. If it reduces the use of solitary confinement, it can’t hurt.

But I think it all misses the point: is there reason to believe that Rikers is the right environment for young people? Continue reading