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City agrees to terms of Rikers Island pact with feds

The eastern section of Rikers Island jail complex

The eastern section of Rikers Island jail complex in Queens on June 11, 2014. Credit: AP / Bebeto Matthews

New York City has agreed to a court-appointed monitor to oversee the Rikers Island jail, as well as tough new restrictions on the use of force and installing 7,800 cameras under a 63-page settlement agreement to stem violence that was outlined in federal court filings on Monday.

The deal, designed to resolve a lawsuit over jail conditions brought by prison reformers and the Justice Department, comes amid a series of criminal cases against guards, civil suits and published reports of an epidemic of brutality in the jail complex housing up to 15,000 inmates.

"This comprehensive framework requires the city to implement sweeping operational changes to fix a broken system and dismantle a decades-long culture of violence," said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who called the deal a "groundbreaking" agreement.

"We are determined to make New York City's Department of Correction the best and safest correctional institution in the country," said Joe Ponte, the reform-minded city correction commissioner brought in last year by Mayor Bill de Blasio to run Rikers.

The deal calls for Steve Martin, a former general counsel to the Texas prison system and consultant on correction reform to the federal government, to oversee implementation of the agreement, subject to oversight by the federal court.

Among other reforms, it requires the city to develop a new use-of-force policy, a new system of "timely and detailed" reports on uses of force without collusion among guards and immediate follow-up investigations.

It calls for tough discipline when excessive force is used, an "early warning system" to track guard performance with data and intervene in "at risk" behavior, the appointment of a "use of force auditor" as well as improved recruitment and training of guards.

The reform plan relies heavily on cameras to ensure compliance at Rikers. The 7,800 additional cameras -- in all areas except showers and toilets -- are to be 50 percent installed by Feb. 1, 2017, and the deal also calls on jail guards to begin using body cameras under a pilot program.

The deal also contains a series of reforms to protect adolescent inmates, who number fewer than 1,000, whose treatment was the subject of a scathing report by Bharara's office last year before he piggybacked on a pending private lawsuit challenging conditions throughout the jail.

Among other reforms, the city agrees to stop using punitive segregation -- also known as solitary -- for inmates younger than 18, cap inmate-to-staff ratios for young prisoners, improve jail programming to minimize idleness and strictly monitor allegations of sexual assault.

The city also agrees to make its "best efforts" to identify a site off Rikers to house inmates younger than 18 that would be more accessible for visits by family and employ a physical layout that would permit closer communication and supervision of inmates by staff.

The deal would remain in place until the city achieved "substantial compliance" with all of its terms for two years. It is subject to final approval by U.S. District Judge Laura Swain, de Blasio and the Justice Department.

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