An abusive "culture of violence" at Rikers's youth prisons

The front page of today's New York Times reports on the findings of the U.S. Attorney's Office that there is a “deep-seated culture of violence” in the prisons that hold adolescent inmates on Rikers Island.

The report, addressed to Mayor Bill de Blasio and two other senior city officials, singled out for blame a “powerful code of silence” among the Rikers staff, along with a virtually useless system for investigating attacks by guards. The result was a “staggering” number of injuries among youthful inmates, the report said.

The report, which comes at a time of increasing scrutiny of the jail complex after a stream of revelations about Rikers’s problems, also found that the department relied to an “excessive and inappropriate” degree on solitary confinement to punish teenage inmates, placing them in punitive segregation, as the practice is known, for months at a time.

The report also enumerates "systemic deficiencies that contribute to, exacerbate, and indeed are largely responsible for the excessive and unnecessary use of force by DOC staff. Many of these systemic deficiencies also lead to the high levels of inmate violence."

The picture is grim, especially given the youth of the inmates and the possibility that they might be rehabilitated -- released after their sentences to be successful and productive members of society. How much harder will it be for these young men to put their lives back together after suffering or even witnessing the treatment described in the report? How can they be expected to trust law enforcement, or any authority? Whatever we imagine prison is "for," it should not be a place where "adolescents" -- or any inmates -- "are at constant risk of physical harm while incarcerated."

One major factor is inadequate oversight. The report notes "several areas in the jails where adolescents are housed have no camera coverage whatsoever. Additionally, critical videotapes frequently go missing."

The missing video surveillance is alarming, given that the Department has a specific policy requiring any video recording of a use of force or alleged use of force to be retained in the office of the Deputy Warden for Security for no less than four years, as well as detailed procedures for documenting the chain of custody for any such recordings. The frequency with which video evidence disappears either indicates an unacceptably blatant disregard for the Department’s policies regarding the safeguarding of video evidence, or even more disturbingly, possible tampering with important evidence.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. Attorney's Office also found that internal investigations into the use of force by staff against inmates (when it is reported) are "inadequate." Staff members, the report says, have no reason to expect that they will be held accountable for violations of policy, and "expect that their version of events will be accepted at face value with little scrutiny" -- even if an inmate's testimony and/or medical evidence contradict it.

Reading the article and the report, particularly the section on the overuse of "punitive segregation," reminded me of Derek Jeffreys's recent Commonweal article on solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, "Cruel but Not Unusual." (See also this recent NYT article by Erica Goode about the practice of "cell extractions.") As Jeffreys wrote, "The dehumanizing conditions in which inmates are held—the lack of sensory stimulation and human contact; the petty control over inmates’ daily lives; the disorientation with regard to time; and the threat of indefinite isolation—are, in the minds of prison officials, essential to solitary’s power as a disciplinary tool. Contemporary solitary confinement is a policy designed to do harm to the men and women subjected to it."

It seems clear that the United States has a prison system that regularly, systematically violates the dignity of the human beings in its custody. It also seems designed to exacerbate the very problems it is supposed to address: violence, anti-social behavior, lawlessness, unstable communities. Reading about the treatment of adolescent prisoners makes that grim irony especially clear. Now, what can we do about it?

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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