U.S. attorney finds Rikers Island officers use force ‘first’ against adolescent inmates


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JUDY WOODRUFF: There’s a deep-seated culture of violence against teen inmates at one of the country’s largest municipal jails, Rikers Island in New York City. That’s how the U.S. attorney in Manhattan described practices and conduct there in a report released yesterday.

It also said staff at Rikers Island — quote — “routinely utilize force not as a last result, but instead as a means to control the adolescent population.”

Among his findings, the U.S. attorney reported: Nearly 44 percent of male teens between 16 and 18 years old have been subjected to force at least once while in custody, a striking number of serious injuries, including broken jaws and bone fractures, and investigations and incident reports that were often incomplete or falsified.

Benjamin Weiser has been covering the story for The New York Times, and joins me now.

Benjamin Weiser, thank you for being here.

This is some strong language in this report that covers the period 2011 to 2013, is it not?

BENJAMIN WEISER, The New York Times: It is strong, but the United States attorney, Preet Bharara, made it clear that they felt they have got it supported with evidence and reports and all the findings that they made.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what do they mean?  When they say deep-seated culture of violence against these 16-to-18-year-olds, what are they referring to?

BENJAMIN WEISER: The United States attorney in this report, a roughly 80-page report, talked about sort of force first, that correction officers there have used force in an excessive way, have resorted to solitary confinement, an overreliance of that, and also a kind of culture of silence.

Correction officers use the euphemism, hold it down. It was widely used within the jails, meaning don’t report this incident. Teachers and medical staff have learned to look the other way or not report or even feared retaliation for reporting accurately what they felt might have been injuries inflicted by staff on other inmates.

The U.S. attorney said Rikers is a broken institution, and broken institutions produce broken people. One of the sad parts of this is that almost half of the inmates, the adolescent inmates, are said to be mentally ill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to read from a part of couple of the descriptions in the story that you wrote, Benjamin Weiser.

You wrote, in one instance, a female corrections officer punched an inmate in the ribs using handcuffs that were wrapped around her hand after he had fallen asleep in class. And then she was joined by other officers who kicked him while he was down on the floor, sprayed him in his eyes with pepper spray.

What was the justification for that?

BENJAMIN WEISER: Well, those are just samplings of a vast number of such cases.

Our own reporting at The New York Times, my colleagues Mike Winerip and Michael Schwirtz, found that an internal report found that 129 inmates had been subjected to incidents of use of force last year over just 11 months. That required after altercations — seriously injured after altercations with staff.

It’s just — the U.S. attorney said there was a widespread violation of civil rights, a pattern and practice of the overuse of force and the overreliance on solitary confinement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And tell us what the report says about how the corrections officers themselves explained why they did what they did.

BENJAMIN WEISER: Well, what the report does say is that many of the corrections officers would give accounts, written reports after the fact, but those reports often were contradicted by not only the inmates’ accounts, but by videotape that was running at the time of an incident.

And, in one case, the report said that accounts by several of the correction officers were so similar in language that it appeared that they had colluded. And, sometimes, the report said, inmates were beaten out of view of video cameras, as if they had been taken into isolated areas where video cameras were not watching.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The code of silence that you mentioned a minute ago appears to be a big part of this, where the report, the U.S. attorney’s office found, as you said, that there was an effort to keep quiet about what happened.

Now, we know that New York City has a new corrections commissioner. What is the new official in charge of all this saying?  And what are they doing now?

BENJAMIN WEISER: That’s a good question.

The report was very careful to make the point that its investigation looked at a period that ended late last year. And, of course, that was the last administration, the Bloomberg administration. He had also made clear that the new commissions — commissioner of correction, Joseph Ponte, had not been the head of the agency during all this misconduct.

But it’s now his ball game. And the report made clear that it expects and hopes a kind of cooperative response from the city over the next few months. If the city doesn’t respond that way, the U.S. attorney’s document said, the U.S. — the Justice Department could actually bring a lawsuit and seek remedial action that way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just to clarify, Rikers Island is a place where youth from all over the New York metropolitan area go?

BENJAMIN WEISER: That’s right. There’s a combination of about 10 jails. Three of the jails presently hold adolescents. There are roughly 490 or 500 or so adolescents currently there. Again, that’s the age of 16 to 18.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do we know what’s happened or what — if there’s any punishment for a guard or a correction officer who was found to have engaged in excessive force?

BENJAMIN WEISER: No. In fact, the report sort of makes the point that most these incidents didn’t lead to substantial punishments or discipline for corrections officers where even that happened.

The union head of the corrections — the corrections union, a fellow named Norm Seabrook — actually, it was interesting. He gave a response to this report yesterday. And he said that they welcome certain reforms. He also said that there had been a lot of mismanagement at Rikers. He was sort of turning it around and pointing to the management and the leadership.

And, to some extent, the report makes that point well. It actually makes it fairly strongly. But he also said that there are times when correction officers need to respond to defend themselves. And he seemed to suggest that much of this might have been that kind of response.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it is a striking report. Benjamin Weiser with The New York Times, we thank you for joining us.

BENJAMIN WEISER: Thank you.

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