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Report: 'Culture of violence' at Rikers for juveniles

A Rikers Island juvenile detention facility officer walks

A Rikers Island juvenile detention facility officer walks down a hallway of the jail, Thursday, July 31, 2014, in New York. Credit: AP / Julie Jacobson

A three-year-long federal civil rights investigation of New York City's Rikers Island jail revealed a "culture of violence" and rampant brutality against adolescent inmates, and a "code of silence" among guards to hide wide-ranging abuse, officials said Monday.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office led the Justice Department probe, said more than 40 percent of adolescents were subjected to force, guards frequently used dangerous "headshots" to enforce discipline, and most attacks took place where there was no camera surveillance.

"For adolescents, Rikers Island is a broken institution," Bharara said at a news conference to release the 79-page report. "It is a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort, . . . where beatings are routine while accountability is rare."

Among 70 proposed reforms, federal officials want the city to move the adolescent population -- which has dropped from 791 to 412 since 2012 -- off Rikers Island to a different pretrial facility with a specially trained staff, install more cameras, improve training and crack down on abusers.

The report covered 2011 to 2013, predating the de Blasio administration. Besides guard attacks, it said inmate-on-inmate violence was out of control and criticized the jail for holding 15 percent to 25 percent of adolescents in "punitive" solitary confinement.

The city has 49 days to respond, and then U.S. officials will decide on filing a civil suit over the alleged pattern of constitutional violations. Bharara did not file criminal charges Monday, but did not rule them out.

In a statement, new city corrections boss Joe Ponte said he is already cutting down on the use of force. "I am committed to the safety and well-being of all inmates, but I am especially focused on radically improving security ... for the adolescent population," he said.

Norman Seabrook, the head of the Rikers guards' union, applauded some of the proposed reforms but said guards need to be able to "use whatever force is necessary."

Rikers houses 14,000 inmates, mostly defendants awaiting trial. Adolescents are housed at the jail because New York automatically charges 16- to 18-year-olds as adults. More than half have a form of mental illness, the report said.

The report, based on interviews and reviews of records on 200 incidents, said adolescents were beaten not only for acting up, but also in response to verbal altercations and as "retribution," and violence frequently continued after inmates stopped resisting.

In one case, two mentally ill inmates were beaten in front of medical staff after throwing urine at guards. Staff said one "screamed for them to stop," and the other was cuffed to a gurney while a captain and several guards punched them.

Later, the report said, a captain told a jail health official he was happy medical staff had witnessed the incident "so that they could ... corroborate the inmates banging their own heads into the wall."

In other cases, the report said, a boy suspected of being a "snitch" against guards was repeatedly kicked in the head, another inmate was beaten for refusing to do pushups, and a third was struck in the ribs with metal handcuffs and beaten for falling asleep in a class.

Investigators said an "astonishing" number of beatings occurred in hallways and classrooms with no camera surveillance. In 35 percent of the incidents where there was a camera, the video had gone "missing."

Bharara said the atmosphere reminded him of the island where the strong enslaved the weak in the novel "Lord of the Flies" rather than "any legitimate philosophy of humane detention." "Something is very wrong at Rikers," he said, "and reform is long overdue. Behind bars does not mean beyond the Constitution."

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