In New York’s Largest Jail, Teens Face ‘Brute Force’ And Intimidation That Horrifies Even Prosecutors

CREDIT: Shutterstock
CREDIT: Shutterstock

In the second-largest jail in the nation, teens are beaten more frequently than not. They are placed in solitary confinement for disciplinary infractions that would be considered typical adolescent behavior outside of jail. And inmates, medical staff, and even teachers, are intimidated out of reporting violence by corrections officers, according to a scathing new Department of Justice report.

Preet Bharara, the top prosecutor for the region whose typical job is to send individuals to jail, called the conditions at Rikers Island “a corrections crucible that seems more inspired by Lord of the Flies than any philosophy of human detention.” For adolescents, he said, Rikers Island is “a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort; where verbal insults are repaid with physical injuries; where beatings are routine while accountability is rare; and where a culture of violence endures even while a code of silence prevails.”

The Department of Justice report comes out of a three-year investigation of a jail that has long been notorious for harsh conditions. This report focused on teens between ages 16 and 18. In New York, these teens are charged as adults and thus placed in the jail where other adult inmates are held. At Rikers Island, the vast majority of inmates are individuals who have been charged with a crime but not yet even convicted or sentenced. Among those who have been housed at Rikers is Kalief Browder, who spent three years there on a charge of robbery at age 16 that was later mysteriously dropped. Some others have been convicted with sentences of a year or shorter. More than half of the adolescents suffer from some form of mental illness.

It is also a place where an “alarming” number of teens are placed in segregated cells that amount to solitary confinement, frequently for months at a time.

Confinement means isolation in a six-by-eight cell 23 hours a day, with one hour of recreation that consists of isolation in an “individual chain-link cage.” “[M]any inmates choose to remain in their cells due to depression or because they do not want to submit to being searched and shackled just to be outside in a cage,” the DOJ reports. These inmates are not even allowed to attend school, although they have option to listen in on the telephone. The teens are often placed in solitary confinement for nonviolent offenses such as shouting obscenities and failure to obey orders promptly that “is often viewed as characteristic adolescent behavior” outside of jail.

Isolation of inmates is associated with severe psychological affects for all inmates even after just a few days, ranging from hallucinations and extreme paranoia to persistent post-traumatic stress disorder and irritability. But isolation is known to have particularly lasting impacts on still-developing adolescents and the mentally ill, and several courts have held that confinement of the mentally ill is unconstitutional. At any given time, some 15 to 25 percent of the teen inmates are placed in confinement, and some 73 percent of those have been diagnosed with moderate to severe mental illness.

Confinement can also lead to self-harm and suicide. The Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence found in a 2012 report that “[n]owhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement.”

This confinement has also been associated with increased anger and violence. And the DOJ found that the use of longtime confinement as a punishment, rather than to segregate dangerous inmates, has led to a “vicious cycle that serves to perpetuate rather than curb inmate violence,” particularly because inmates are not given the mental health treatment they need while in confinement. The report found that confinement “may make these adolescents more prone to unstable and violent behavior, and exacerbate the mental health issues prevalent among the Rikers adolescent population.”

Brutal beatings are also a common form not just of self-defense for officers but of retribution and control, the report details. Among the most common injuries are head blows, in many cases causing broken jaws, broken noses, and lacerations requiring sutures. In one instance, an inmate was brutally beaten for being a “snitch” because the officers falsely believed that the teen had reported their prior use of force to the jail. In another incident captured on video, an officer slammed a sliding door on a mentally ill inmate’s arm. Although he wrote in his report that the inmate would not remove his arm, video showed that the officer slammed the door closed within a few seconds of arriving at the cell.

In 2013, there were 565 injuries reported. Some 43.7 percent of the inmates had been injured at some point, and the consultant hired by the Department of Justice who has visited hundreds of facilities said he had never seen a higher rate of injury. Inmate-on-inmate violence was also more prevalent than at any other facility the consultant had ever visited. The report attributed this in large part to idle time and limited program for these teens to keep occupied.

Officers are obligated to report use of force incidents. But not only did they withhold or misrepresent these incidents. In many cases they reported use of force by an inmate against a corrections officer without including the force by the officer that preceded or followed. After using force, officers urged inmates not to report the incidents, using the common phrase to “hold it down” and encouraging them not to seek medical attention. DOJ even found evidence that medical staff and teachers faced retaliation for reporting what they believed to be force against the teens.

This investigation only explored juveniles, but reports have also detailed horrific conditions for many adults, particularly mentally ill inmates. Last September, a schizophrenic inmate left in solitary confinement for seven days died after he was found unconscious in his cell, covered in his own feces. The death was ruled a homicide. In March, a homeless inmate arrested for sleeping in a stairwell “baked to death” at Rikers.