October 21, 2015 / 8:05 PM / 3 years ago

Judge approves plan to reform New York's Rikers Island jails

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City will carry out systemic reforms at its troubled Rikers Island jail complex to resolve claims that guards regularly used unnecessary force against inmates, under the terms of a settlement approved by a federal judge on Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain in Manhattan called the settlement between the city, the U.S. Justice Department and a group of inmates a “groundbreaking” result.

Swain added she looked forward to seeing “rapid and meaningful progress” in reports to be submitted by a federal monitor appointed to oversee the reforms.

“The settlement provides an important example for other correctional systems around the country,” she said.

Rikers Island, which has 10 jails and one of the largest U.S. jail complexes with around 10,000 prisoners daily, has been the focus of intense scrutiny over safety and security issues.

Dozens of guards have in recent years faced criminal charges for an array of offenses including assaulting inmates and smuggling contraband.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has made it a priority to reform the city’s jails, which a report by the city comptroller’s office on Friday said have seen rising levels of violence despite a declining inmate population.

Under the agreement, which was announced in June, the city will install 7,800 surveillance cameras throughout Rikers and, as part of pilot program, have some guards wear body cameras.

The city will also develop an early warning system to identify guards who may warrant corrective actions and a computerized system to track use-of-force incidents.

The agreement also calls for improved training, recruitment and promotion practices and changes to how teenage inmates are treated, something the city had already begun tackling.

The settlement followed a 2014 Department of Justice report that described a pattern of violent abuse of male inmates aged 16 to 18 by jail staff.

The Justice Department subsequently intervened in December in a class action filed in 2011 accusing the New York City Department of Correction of a pattern of using excessive force against inmates.

Joseph Ponte, the city’s correction commissioner, in a statement welcomed the settlement’s approval, adding that work to reform Rikers was “well under way.”

Under the settlement, the city will pay $6.5 million to cover the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ fees and costs.

Compliance with the agreement will be overseen by a monitor, Steve Martin, a corrections expert who has served as a consultant for the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security.

Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Frances Kerry and Diane Craft

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