Despite Reform Efforts, Rikers Island Is Still Hell On Earth

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A New York Times article released on Sunday revealed that abuses continue at Rikers Island, despite Mayor de Blasio’s commitment to improve the conditions at the detention facility. The report details 62 cases “in which inmates were seriously injured by correction officers” since the release of the Justice Department’s findings last August (the investigation highlighted systematic abuse of male adolescents at Rikers and a “culture of violence”) in January of this year. The Times’ findings call into question the efficacy of the de Blasio administration’s reform efforts.

In January, officials announced Rikers would put an end to solitary confinement for detainees 21 and under. While the administration seemed hopeful this was a step in the right direction, union officials voiced their concerns. After the announcement, the Times quoted Sidney Schwartzbaum, a union leader for assistant deputy wardens, arguing that this particular age group is particularly prone to violence.

Records indicate that guards made use of force more than 4,000 times in 2014, “the highest total in more than a decade.” It’s not a stretch then to conclude that in light of record high brutality incidents, rank-and-file corrections officers might be resisting reform efforts seeking to curb the use of excessive force and put an end to malicious beatings. The Times report suggests that “in the face of an unprecedented push to reform Rikers, guards are either being defiant or are indifferent to demands for change.”

And the resulting injuries from thousands of incidents were not just cuts and bruises. The Times picked out about 60 cases in which inmates were beaten and found that 70 percent of the victims were subjected to head injuries. Some of these incidents involved detainees sustaining serious serious injuries (including a broken jaw) while handcuffed.

This report comes in the wake of an exposé published last summer by the paper, just prior to the release of the Justice Department’s Findings. That investigative piece detailed pervasive violence against inmates diagnosed with mental illnesses, and the latest findings show that abuses against inmates with a variety of mental incapacities (who make up approximately 40 percent of the prison population at the compound) are still the targets of abuse.

In November, the de Blasio administration announced their plans for an overhaul of Rikers and commitment to put an end to the detention center’s “dehumanizing environment” with the help of nearly $50 million dedicated to training corrections officers and the installation of cameras.

This is some seriously depressing news and evidence of just how entrenched the “culture of violence” truly is at Rikers. The corrections department defended the findings in a statement, “It takes time to undo decades of mismanagement […] We are, however, on our way to a jail system that is safer and more humane.”


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