The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York has written to the mayor and other city officials advising them that an investigation has revealed systematic tolerance of abuse of adolescent inmates on Rikers Island. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara concluded that “adolescent inmates at Rikers are not adequately protected from harm, including serious physical harm from the rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force by [guards].” The U.S. Attorney identified a “culture of violence” and further faulted the Department of Correction for relying far too often on solitary confinement, which has been shown to cause terrible mental and emotional problems. The incidence of reports of violence was highest in areas of the jail that lacked video surveillance. If someone you love is incarcerated at Rikers Island, the report confirms what you already knew: he is in immediate danger.
The U.S. attorney’s recognition of an old problem is welcome, but Rikers’s youth facilities — three of the ten facilities on the island hold 16- and 17-year-old inmates — have been a tinderbox of violence and neglect for at least twenty years and probably longer. In our experience, the Department of Correction’s internal review process for allegations of violence is quite literally a joke: a Soviet-style bureaucracy aware of its own uselessness. Most violence goes totally unreported and those who do report being assaulted are frequently subjected to retribution by guards and inmates alike. The only meaningful redress for those injured is to sue in court.
At the same time, a small but courageous cadre of civil rights attorneys works through the courts to shine light on a brutal, closed system. Journalists at the Village Voice and other media have picked up on the problem, but gotten little response. Input and support from the federal government is welcome: Mr. Bharara’s 79-page report should help the City, judges, and juries take the claims of boys injured at Rikers more seriously. It provides details of the “pattern and practice” which must be proved in court to show that the City — not just an individual corrections officer — is responsible for an inmate’s injuries. In conclusion, it threatens further federal action, including a lawsuit, if the City fails to address the problem.