Rikers Island prison faces federal lawsuit over 'culture of violence' against teens


Just a day after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio visited Riker’s Island and praised the progress the jail complex is making vis-a-vis prisoner safety and treatment, federal prosecutors filed a lawsuit in Manhattan Federal Court intended to hasten reforms.

The lawsuit stems from an August 2014 Justice Department report that found that “beatings are routine” and “accountability is rare” when dealing with adolescent inmates. The report also concluded that the use of solitary confinement for adolescent inmates was “excessive and unacceptable.”

The report recommended the following to address the conditions in the jail:

  1. House adolescent inmates separately in a DOC jail not physically located on Rikers Island;
  1. Increase the number of cameras in adolescent areas;
  1. Revise use of force policy to clarify prohibited conduct;
  1. Ensure that staff submit complete, accurate, and prompt use of force reports, and institute a zero-tolerance policy for failing to report;
  1. Ensure that use of force incidents are investigated thoroughly and promptly, and hold staff accountable for biased or incomplete reports and investigations;
  1. Ensure that inmates are adequately supervised, intervene to de-escalate fights, and transfer vulnerable or otherwise at risk inmates to alternative housing units;
  1. Improve officer training programs on use of force, conflict resolution, reporting use of force, and handling of the adolescent population;
  1. Ensure that staff are held accountable and disciplined for the use of excessive and unnecessary force;
  1. Develop alternative disciplinary strategies that do not involve lengthy isolation, and prohibit the placement of adolescents with mental health disorders in solitary confinement;
  1. Develop and implement a strategic plan to create an institutional culture that does not tolerate violence and holds staff accountable for excessive or unnecessary use of force.


Riker’s is a nightmare. The conditions are inhuman. And it’s even worse when you realize that most of the inmates there are pre-trial detainees (i.e., they couldn’t make bail, or weren’t offered bail), meaning they haven’t yet been convicted of a crime.

Years back, I worked there in a program that tutored young inmates who wanted to get a GED. A good thing, since some education would materially decrease their chances of returning to Riker’s. From what I understand, things have gotten a lot worse since then (back in the late 70s).


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