July 14, 2014

Guard-on-Inmate Violence at Rikers

The New York Times today published a lengthy, in-depth report on the seemingly growing incidents of violent assaults by guards on inmates at Rikers Island. The victims are primarily inmates suffering from mental illness. It's a sad indictment of the the City's Department of Corrections and reveals a culture of violence among many COs at Rikers that is widely accepted, if not endorsed throughout the DOC. Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz have written a detailed and informative article that shines a bright light into corners most people hope never to see.

According to the Times, the City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene published a comprehensive report on guard on inmate violence during the first 11 months of 2013, which included 129 incidents where inmates suffered "serious" injuries at the hands of COs, meaning they could not be treated at Rikers and required outside medical care. 80 percent of these inmates complained of being beaten after they were handcuffed, and 77 percent suffered from some sort of mental illness. The Times tried to obtain the report through a Freedom of Information Act request but was rebuffed. The reporters later scored the report from a source. Reading the article, one can readily see why the City tried to hide the report.

The Times discuss several incidents in depth, painting a disturbing portrait of guards who lack any sort of training in dealing with the mentally ill, and whose first and only reaction to any sort of provocation is aggression. This violence often causes injuries, which leads to cover ups. The guards, recognizing their own misbehavior, falsely document the incidents, fabricating misconduct on the part of the inmate and downplaying their own culpability. It's not clear why they bother, since the misconduct is often discovered but then goes unpunished.

As discussed here last week, the City's head of the Department of Investigation has recently announced the DOI's own investigations into corrupt and violent guards at Rikers had revealed “a pattern of lawless conduct at Rikers that must be brought under control,” referring in part to the corruption of the justice system that occurs "when sworn law enforcement officers falsify documents to cover up crimes.” While some arrests have been made, there is no reason yet to believe that any meaningful change is imminent.

This post barely touches on the details of the Times article, which itself, while substantive, can only skim the surface of a much larger problem. Still, it is a revealing report and I would urge anyone looking at this post to click over and give it a read.

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