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Federal investigation finds widespread adolescent inmate abuse at Rikers Island; U.S. attorney calls it a “broken institution”

NEW YORK - A multi-year civil investigation pursuant to the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (“CRIPA”) into the conditions of confinement of adolescent male inmates on Rikers Island found hundreds of instances of abuse. Results of the investigation were announced on Monday by United States Attorney General Eric Holder and United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara.,

The investigation, which focused on use of force by staff, inmate-on-inmate violence, and use of punitive segregation during the period 2011-2013, concluded that there is a pattern and practice of conduct at Rikers Island that violates the rights of adolescents protected by the Eighth Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The investigation found that adolescent inmates are not adequately protected from physical harm due to the rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force by New York City Department of Correction (“DOC”) staff and violence inflicted by other inmates. In addition, the investigation found that DOC relies too heavily on punitive segregation as a disciplinary measure, placing adolescent inmates in what amounts to solitary confinement at an alarming rate and for excessive periods of time. Many of the adolescent inmates are particularly vulnerable because they suffer from mental illness.

“The extremely high rates of violence and excessive use of solitary confinement for adolescent males uncovered by this investigation are inappropriate and unacceptable,” said Holder.  “The Department of Justice is dedicated to ensuring the effectiveness, safety and integrity of our criminal justice systems. Going forward, we will work with the City of New York to make good on our commitment to reform practices that are unfair and unjust, and to ensure that - in all circumstances, and particularly when it comes to our young people - incarceration is used to deter, punish, and ultimately rehabilitate, not merely to warehouse and forget.”

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said: “As our investigation has shown, for adolescents, Rikers Island is a broken institution. 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 contends the adolescents in Rikers are “… walled off from the public, but they are not walled off from the Constitution.”

Most of the young men are pre-trial detainees.

“These young men, automatically charged as adults despite their age under New York law, may be on an island and out of sight, but they can no longer remain out of mind”, Bharara said  “Attention must be paid immediately to their rights, their safety and their mental well-being, and in the wake of this report we will make sure that happens one way or another.”

In its report to the City of New York, made public today, the U.S. Attorney’s Office notes that “a deep-seated culture of violence is pervasive throughout the adolescent facilities at Rikers, and DOC staff routinely utilize force not as a last resort, but instead as a means to control the adolescent population and punish disorderly or disrespectful behavior.”