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.

Against Reform: Beyond Rikers Island

There are a couple of things I want to say about the 10 reform bills proposed in the NYC Council this week targeting the Department of Corrections.

First, as I mentioned in my rundown, even if these bills pass, they will be meaningless without rigorous enforcement and oversight by the council. Much of the problem here is not that the city lacks regulations over its jails — it’s that the Department of Corrections seems to follow its own rules and break theirs with impunity. For evidence of this, read pretty much any post I’ve written about Rikers Island.

My next point is more of a confession and a question than anything else. I understand why the council is leading its charge with bills aimed at transparency and reporting. They need this data in order to make well-informed decisions about how to change laws governing incarceration in New York City.

But in the end, I can’t help but think back to the final chapter of Nell Bernstein’s incredible book on ending juvenile incarceration, Burning Down The House.

In the chapter titled, “Against Reform: Beyond the Juvenile Prison,” Bernstein writes:

A great strength of our democracy, our reformist nature is also a critical weakness, blinding us to those occasions when a long-standing institution has a fundamental, conceptual flaw– the kind that demands not a wrench but a wrecking ball. If a reform proves inadequate, we simply try again. Another task force is assembled to supplant a now-defunct commission; new committees are assigned to exhume the wreckage of the old. Sometimes, these efforts pay off, and progress — our national religion — is attained. But there are also occasions when our reformist zeal leaves us patching the roof of a building that lacks a foundation.

Are the Mayor and the City Council approaching their criminal justice crisis with the “wrecking ball” it deserves, or the “wrench?” By maintaining juvenile incarceration, establishing the ESHU and keeping Corizon (among other things), is New York “patching the roof of a building that lacks a foundation?”

Report: Rikers Island Health Staff Shouldn’t Participate in Solitary Confinement Placement Process

The Associated Press got a sneak preview of a new study that found the medical ethics of healthcare workers on Rikers Island are seriously compromised — especially when they are involved in placing inmates in solitary confinement:

The two-year study at New York’s sprawling Rikers Island jail complex concluded with a bold recommendation to remove health workers entirely from the most contentious issue they face — whether to put an inmate in solitary. That’s because many doctors believe the confinement, which involves 23-hour stretches of isolation, could harm inmates.

Additionally, over 90% of health workers reported they treated an inmate for what was filed as a fight with another inmate, when in fact the inmate claimed to have been assaulted by guards. 16% had “heard of or seen” guards beating inmates at the health clinic. Many acknowledged concern over retaliation if they reported guard-on-inmate violence.

Unfortunately, the report’s central recommendation to remove healthcare workers from the placement process for solitary confinement directly contradicts the new rules adopted by the Board of Correction this past January. Continue reading

“[D]uring this [time], no mother will work in the detention center, nor will we send our children to school, not will we use any services here, until we are heard and approved: we want our FREEDOM.” Originally published at

Undocumented mothers put in solitary after 78 launch hunger strike at private prison

Last week, seventy-eight incarcerated mothers at GEO Group’s Karnes County Detention Center in Texas signed a letter announcing a hunger and work strike and to demand their immediate release. Now Roque Planas at the Huffington Post is reporting that some of those mothers were put in solitary confinement with their children in response to the protest.

Aura Bogado obtained the prisoners’ letter for, and writes that “most have brought their children from Guatemala and El Salvador—countries with some of the highest femicide rates on the planet.” She continues:

The mothers who’ve signed the letter have all been interviewed by immigration officials and have established a credible fear of persecution or torture if they were to be deported. But they either haven’t been given an opportunity to post bond for release, or the bond amount has been set too high. Their letter, in part, reads:

“[D]uring this [time], no mother will work in the detention center, nor will we send our children to school, not will we use any services here, until we are heard and approved: we want our FREEDOM.”

The strike began Monday with some 40 women and it has no definite end date. At a facility like Karnes, where detainees run a lot of the essential services, a strike can also impact people who aren’t participating.

An immigration officer I spoke with at Karnes who repeatedly declined to give her name laughed when I called on Tuesday. I asked why she was laughing and she answered, “These attorneys convinced them all to do stuff,” and shortly thereafter they hung up on me. Phone calls to GEO Group staff at Karnes have not been returned.

At so-called “family residential detention centers” like Karnes, mothers and children captured crossing the US-Mexico border are incarcerated together. The women are paid $3 per day to help run the facility. Because Karnes County is also home to massive fracking operations and water contamination, many have to drink bottled water — which happens to cost $3.

This demonstration is the latest in what appears to be a growing protest movement by immigrant detainees at private prisons across the country. Last year, hundreds of immigrant detainees staged a 14 hour protest against their mistreatment and conditions at the CCA-operated Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown. The Bureau of Prisons decided not to renew that contract. Those inmates were sent to federal prisons elsewhere in the country.

In February of this year, immigrant prisoners at the MTC-operated “gladiator school” tent city in Raymondville, Texas, began a demonstration in which several of the Kevlar-domed housing units were damaged by fire. That prison has been closed and the inmates have been moved to other federal prisons as well.

In both cases, the communities that hosted these private prison companies suffered greatly. Youngstown, which like many towns throughout America is still recovering from the recession and the offshoring of industry, lost 185 jobs at once. It is expected to lose millions in tax revenues — money meant for education and other essential public works. Over 360 people lost jobs in Raymondville after the protest at Willacy. S&P recently downgraded the Willacy County’s bonds to junk, and taxpayers in both communities will be left to fill the budget gaps. These are some of the very real consequences of prison privatization that people rarely talk about: what happens to the community when things get so bad they suddenly lose their contract?

And as for the prisoners: the response to their demonstrations seem to be a double-edged sword. Will the action at Karnes escalate to the point of Youngstown and Willacy, forcing the government to act and even cancel the contract? More importantly, if that happens, will the prisoners’ demands be met or will they be ‘disappeared’ throughout the country like the others?

New solitary confinement unit plagued by old problems on Rikers Island

At the beginning of March, New York City’s Board of Correction released a preliminary report on Rikers Island’s controversial new isolation facility, the Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit (ESHU). The $14.8 million ESHU was proposed to house 250 of Rikers’ so-called “most dangerous” inmates– a small minority of the prison population that officials claim is responsible for the majority of inmate violence.

Amid federal, state and municipal investigations and a seemingly endless stream of lawsuits alleging horrendous civil rights violations, city officials vowed to change the abusive and dysfunctional culture of the Department of Correction.

The opening of the ESHU at the beginning of this year is one of the first and only of the proposed reforms to have been implemented so far.

Meet the ESHU

Basic demographic information on the 18 ESH inmates

Basic demographic information on the 18 ESH inmates

Like the rest of Rikers Island, the overwhelming majority of people confined to the ESHU are young black males: the report says that 72% are African American and the average inmate is in his mid-20’s.

Despite promises to divert mentally ill prisoners from the ESHU, 13 of the 18 inmates (72%) living there have been given an “m status.”

28% of ESH inmates came directly from punitive segregation and 6% came from long-term isolation units known as Restrictive Housing Units (RHU).

ESH inmates averaged 129 days in punitive segregation in the past year. The Board notes that “with the recent punitive segregation restrictions of no more than 30 consecutive days or 60 days within any six month period, inmates who have maxed out their time in punitive segregation (which includes RHU) may be transferred to ESH.” They promise to closely watch the flow of inmates from punitive segregation to the ESHU.

Continue reading

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

New wrongful death lawsuit raises more questions about coming Rikers Island reforms

On February 11th, the Associated Press reported that the mother of deceased Rikers Island inmate Quannell Offley was suing New York City for her son’s wrongful death. The lawsuit is one of many facing the city over Rikers Island and comes after months of reports detailing abuse and neglect by the city’s prison staff.

According to the lawsuit, Offley told prison guards on multiple occasions that he wanted to kill himself after being placed in solitary confinement. His final threat was met by a guard who said, “If you have the balls, go ahead and do it.” He was later found hanging from a bed sheet attached to an air vent in his cell.

Offley’s suicide came just a few weeks after Bradley Ballard, a schizophrenic and diabetic prisoner, also died in a solitary unit at Rikers. Ballard was locked in isolation for 7 days straight without water, exercise, shower, therapy or medication, and was eventually found unconscious on the floor, covered in feces and urine with a rubber band tied tightly around his badly-infected penis. When clinical staff finally arrived, just moments before Ballard’s death, the doctor refused to even touch him or enter his cell. In what would be the last of several severe violations of Ballard’s civil rights, the doctor instructed inmate workers to wrap his filthy, dying body in a bed sheet and remove him.

According to the New York Codes, Rules and Regulations, “A qualified medical practitioner […] is required to visit the SHU once in every 24-hour period to examine into the state of health of the inmates confined in such unit.” But security camera footage of the SHU where Ballard was confined showed medical staff skipping rounds or speaking with prisoners for little more than a minute at a time. Having been in isolation around the same time as Ballard at Rikers, Offley appears to have experienced similar neglect by medical staff in the unit. Continue reading