Violence at Rikers Island has long been a problem, but lately it has received increased attention. In August, the office of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York released a blistering report that cited a “deep-seated culture of violence” directed primarily at teenage inmates at the prison. Now it appears that federal prosecutors plan to sue the city of New York over widespread civil rights violations connected to the treatment of adolescent prisoners at Rikers.
The New York Times reported this morning on the court filing revealing the feds’ plan. In the filing, Preet Bahara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, wrote that “while the United States had hoped to reach a speedy resolution with the city on these critical issues, thus far insufficient progress has been made.”
The Times also noted that in the filing:
Mr. Bharara’s office asked a federal judge in Manhattan for permission to intervene in an existing class-action lawsuit, Nunez v. City of New York, over brutality at Rikers that had been filed by the Legal Aid Society and two private law firms. In contrast to Mr. Bharara’s investigation of the treatment of adolescent inmates, the Nunez case focuses on all Rikers inmates, regardless of age.
The damning report Bahara’s office issued in August followed a two-and-a-half year investigation into the inner workings of the prison, the living conditions of its inmates, and guard accountability measures, amongst many other factors. Investigators found that beatings, which were regular, occurred out of view of security cameras; that internal investigations were subject to interminable delays and obstructions; and that guards falsified records or otherwise failed to properly document incidents.
Enabling all of this is a code of silence and an intrinsic institutional advantage for the guards. Combined with the escalating tendency for law enforcement of all stripes to look at their charges as potential enemies, these factors empower the prison guards, creating an unbalanced situation ripe for abuse. For too long, no has been held accountable for the shocking brutality exhibited in America’s prisons; Rikers is just Exhibit A. Let’s hope that starts changing here.
Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.