jails

Jail Guards Using Violent Force More Often, Monitor Says, in ‘Toxic Environment’

The George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island.
The George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island. Photo: Courtesy of the Department of Correction

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The city Department of Correction hasn’t reined in “hyper-confrontational” officers’ use of physical force on inmates — and has failed to enact promised reforms, a federal monitor overseeing the jail system found.

In the first six months of 2019, use-of-force rates in the department’s dozen jail facilities reached their highest levels since the federal monitor began issuing quarterly findings in 2016, according to its eighth report, released Monday.

The overall number of incidents also rose to an average of more than 550 a month up from about 500, the monitor found, even as the total jail population shrank to less than 8,000.

“Staff are often hyper-confrontational and respond to incidents in a manner that is hasty, hurried, thoughtless, reckless, careless or in disregard of consequences,” the 302-page report said.

Correction officers continue to use “ineffective techniques” like blows to the head and painful arm holds while escorting people, the monitor found. Supervisors who attempted to intervene to stop inappropriate uses of force were also targets of “physical assault” by correction officers, the report found.

“That incidents like these are occurring at all, and are not addressed immediately by management, clearly serves to perpetuate an already toxic environment,” wrote the monitor, Steve Martin.

In a statement, Correction Department Commissioner Cynthia Brann said that “meaningful reform and culture change take time.”

“We will not be satisfied until we see substantial improvement across the board,” she added. “The safety and wellbeing of the people who work and live in our facilities is our top priority.”

Policy Changed, Then Ignored

A Manhattan federal judge appointed Martin in 2015, as part of a settlement tied to a class-action lawsuit by young New York City inmates who alleged serious abuses by officers that included excessive solitary confinement and beatings.

The Justice Department later joined the case, Nunez v. City of New York, with then-Manhattan Federal Attorney Preet Bharara citing a “deep-seated culture of violence” against teen inmates at Rikers Island.

Under the terms of the court settlement, the Department of Correction has taken measures to reduce the use of physical force by guards, revising its policy in 2017 to order officers to avoid blows to the head with fists or batons unless their lives are being threatened.

But the department “at virtually all levels” has failed “to actively, directly, and consistently” enforce the policy, the report said.

In another major violation of the agreement, the monitor found, the Department of Correction has failed to decrease the use of force against young inmates.

‘A Failed State’

Mary Lynne Werlwas, a Legal Aid Society lawyer who represented the plaintiffs in the Nunez case, said the latest report “describes a failed state.”

“Wardens take little or no responsibility for what happens in their jails,” she said in a statement. “Officers initiate conflict with people in custody that leads to violence. Leaders are not called to task for failing to manage insubordinate and hostile staff.”

In a May 22, 2019, case described by the monitor, an “out-of-control” officer fought with a colleague who tried to intervene and de-escalate a conflict. The incident mushroomed into five separate officer uses of force — including at least one who blasted pepper spray at an inmate, the federal monitor review said.

No officers have been disciplined, the report added.

An activist supports closing the Rikers Island jail complex during a City Council hearing, Sept. 5, 2019.
An activist supports closing the Rikers Island jail complex during a City Council hearing, Sept. 5, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The monitor warned that violence will haunt the Correction Department even as plans proceed to close Rikers Island and replace it with four newly constructed borough-based facilities by 2026.

The Department of Correction also fell short of its commitment to timely investigations of use-of-force incidents, the monitor found. Officers escaped possible discipline in 2,001 instances in the first six months of 2019 because investigations dragged on past an 18-month statute of limitations, according to the report.

“This cultural dynamic, which is better described as an occupational ideology, runs counter to modern and professional correctional practice,” the report said.

‘No Easy Solutions’

Even when cases are probed, some investigators “make statements that would discourage an inmate from cooperating, by using a chilling tone of voice,” according to the report.

The number of officer uses of force against 16-and 17-year old youths who were relocated from city Correction Department jails to Horizon Juvenile Center in The Bronx also has gone up despite a declining population in the youth facility, the report said.

The increases in officer violence highlighted in the monitor’s latest findings continue an upward trend. In its April report, the federal monitor reported that the department’s “unremitting” use of force hit a three-year high.

Brann said the department is working to change.

“This latest monitor’s report makes clear,” she said, “there are no easy solutions and we have hard work ahead of us when it comes to reducing violence and the inappropriate use of force.”

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