NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New York City Department of Correction has routinely violated the constitutional rights of male teenagers at the Rikers Island jail complex through a “culture of violence” that relies on beatings, the federal government said in a report released on Monday.
The U.S. Justice Department said the multiyear probe had found a pattern of “conduct and practice” pervading the sprawling Rikers detention facility that violates the rights of young inmates.
For adolescents, Rikers is a “broken institution,” said Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for New York’s Southern District.
“It is a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort; where verbal insults are repaid with physical injuries; where beatings are routine while accountability is rare; and where a culture of violence endures even while a code of silence prevails,” Bharara said in a joint statement with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
There was no immediate comment from the city’s Department of Correction or from Mayor Bill de Blasio, to whom the report was addressed.
On an average day in 2013, Rikers housed 682 male inmates aged 16 to 18 years old. The majority are awaiting trial, either denied or unable to afford bail. Many of the male teenage inmates are particularly vulnerable because just over half of them have a mental illness, investigators said.
Bharara said the inmates’ treatment seemed “more inspired by ‘Lord of the Flies’ than any legitimate philosophy of humane detention,” referring to William Golding’s 1954 allegorical novel.
Bharara said his office had not yet launched any legal action in connection with the report.
The report recommended that the city house adolescent inmates somewhere other than Rikers Island, which is located in the East River between the boroughs of Queens and the Bronx.
It also urged the city to increase its use of surveillance cameras, revise its use-of-force policy and create a zero-tolerance policy for staff who fail to report suspicious behavior by officers.
Jail guards at Rikers too often resort to blows to the heads of young inmates, the report said. On any given day in 2013, up to 25 percent of adolescent inmates were in solitary confinement, which sometimes lasted for months at a time, it said.
For example, on Dec. 16, 2013, more than half of the teenagers in solitary confinement were sentenced to punitive segregation for 60 days or more, officials said in the statement.
The main union for the city’s correction officers said the Correction Department had been “plagued with mismanagement for years” and that it welcomed some of the report’s suggestions but defended some uses of force.
“There may be a few that react with what you might think is excessive force,” Norman Seabrook, president of the city’s Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, said in a statement, “but in defense of an officer being assaulted by an inmate, a Correction Officer must use whatever force is necessary to terminate the assault.”
Dora Schriro, who was the Correction Department’s commissioner during the period that was investigated and is now the commissioner of Connecticut’s emergency services department, did not respond to a request for comment.
Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Jim Loney and Eric Beech