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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?

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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I hope the second season of Orange Is The New Black helps to spread awareness that solitary confinement is psychologically damaging.

I would set up a system where camera feeds are streamed to some central archive. It is clear that the individual prisons cannot be trusted.

This situation is particularly infuriating for exactly the reason that Mollie points out: these young men are still in their formative years, and the possibility of forming them into law-abiding, productive citizens is very real.  The church must speak out against these conditions.  Those who are providing chaplain services can and must make their voices heard.

A housecleaning of prison management and staff would seem to be in order, and criminal charges filed where appropriate.  A new management team committed to reform must be brought in.

Now, what can we do about it?

Richard  Posner, a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals, makes some good recommendations in this review of Robert A. Ferguson's Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment. "The only realistic solution to deplorable prison conditions is to reduce the number of prisoners," Posner writes. And the most obvious way to reduce the number of prisoners is to decriminalize some of the things that people end up in prison for. From Posner's essay:

Some criminals are at once dangerous and incorrigible, and for them there is no practical alternative to long prison terms. But it is demonstrable that too much conduct has been made criminal in this country, and that many prison sentences are far too long. About half our prison inmates are drug dealers: were the purchase and sale of illegal drugs decriminalized, the prison population would plummet, and as a result prison conditions would improve dramatically. Oddly Ferguson does not advocate decriminalization but merely amnesty for those drug offenders “who conquer their addiction in prison.” There are also other candidates for decriminalization, such as prostitution and copyright infringement (which should be just a civil offense); and it is time that the age of consent were reduced to 16 or even 15, in recognition of contemporary sexual mores. Gambling should be decriminalized, and probably environmental offenses as well, such as killing a migratory bird; such offenses should be left to the civil law, with its financial sanctions.

This is one issue where people on the left can close ranks with libertarians, which is good because we will need all the allies we can find if we're going to overcome the resistance of the lucrative prison industry, as well as a culture that is notably unsympathetic to lawbreakers. Posner again:

[A]ll such reforms will be inhibited by the American characteristic that Ferguson emphasizes: hatred of criminals. Not that the inhabitants of foreign countries do not hate criminals; the canonical celebration of hatred of criminals was by the great English jurist James Fitzjames Stephen (Virginia Woolf’s uncle), who said that “it is morally right to hate criminals” and in fact “highly desirable that criminals should be hated” because otherwise there would not be strong pressure to enforce the criminal law unless people understood the purely utilitarian benefits of such enforcement. But the American hatred of criminals is especially unforgiving, reflecting our “sink or swim” mentality—the belief that America is the land of unlimited lawful opportunity and whoever fails to take the opportunity offered, turning to crime instead, has only himself to blame for his perverse choice and his condign punishment. We punish not only to deter or to incapacitate, but also to express our indignation. It is the Calvinist spirit at work. (Ferguson notes the philosophical and religious roots of penal severity in Machiavelli, Calvin, and Kant.) This is further intensified by the nation’s ethnic, religious, and racial diversity, for people have difficulty sympathizing with the failings of persons who are “other.” America is not one big happy family.

It was reported this morning on WNYC that some of the young people incarcerated at Rikers Island actually request solitary confinement because they think they'll be safer if they aren't with other prisoners.

Matthew, thanks for those interesting passages from Posner's review.  Inasmuch as we're talking in this instance of juvenile offenders, I don't know to what extent over-imprisonment would apply.  No doubt, a number of the offenders are in Rikers for drug-related offenses, so perhaps Posner's decriminalization recommendations would apply to them.  But typically juvenile sentences are short, and in many instances they aren't sentenced to prison until they've committed multiple offenses.  

I haven't had a chance to look at the actual report, but I am wondering to what extent street gang-related activity lands these teens in jail, and then gang affiliations and conflicts within the prison bring about the prisoner-on-prisoner violence.  

The article and this discussion avoid sexual violence to these young people.  I'm sure there is more than one reason why cameras avoid observing certain areas in Rikers.

From the NYT article:

One inmate said that he was continually harassed by the correctional staff after reporting that he was raped by a guard and that he was warned by guards not to speak about the episode in an interview with a consultant on the investigation.

Outrageous. OK, DiBlasio, let's see you step up to the plate and do something about this.

I am glad or see this issue foregrounded. Conditions of jails and prisons across North America I horrific and it is not something that garners a lot of public sympathy. We have a moral duty to treat our prisoners and provide opportunity for rehab. 

Recidvism rates among youth are high at least according to this BC story. I suspect the same is true in New York and the demographics and challenges similar. 

Increasing literacy is a goal for many. Most youth are reading at grade 4 level.

This is an important and worthwhile ministry for the church. Bettering conditions is essential.


I think there are a lot of people in this country who would like to use "Les Miserables" as a playbook of what prisons should be like.  Sexual assault and abuse in prisons seem to be accepted as almost a given. Joe Arapaio is lionized for his "tent cities" (nevermind that he is in a bit of trouble in his home area for scandals involving the deaths and injuries of prisoners in his custody.)

Our jails are a national disgrace as are many of our criminal laws.  We should only be incarcerating those who pose a real physical threat to others.  We should let the other 90% go free.  Just having a record makes it nearly impossible to get any job, let alone a decent one.

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