U.S. Attorney Says Rikers Island Is Like "Lord Of The Flies" For Teenage Inmates

The Manhattan U.S. Attorney's Office released the findings of a more than two-year study of Rikers Island that found the jails to be an extremely violent and unsafe place for adolescent inmates. "Our investigation has shown, for adolescents, Rikers is broken."

In a report presented to the city of New York made public today, the U.S. Attorney's Office found that over a two-and-half year investigation the jails at Rikers Island are violent and unsafe for male inmates between the ages of 16 to 18.

"As our investigation has shown, for adolescents, Rikers is a broken institution," Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Monday. "It is a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort."

The report also found the practice of excessive force by corrections officers that violate constitutional rights of the teenage inmates is common.

According to the report, in 2012 there were 517 reported staff use of force incidents in an average daily adolescent population of 791 — resulting in 1,059 injuries — at two Rikers Island jails housing teenage inmates.

In 2013, there were 565 reported incidents of staff use of force in the same Rikers Island jails with an average population of 682 — resulting in 1,057 injuries. That same year, adolescent inmates were taken off Rikers Island to get emergency medical services 459 times. It's unclear how many, if any, were related to the staff incidents.

The report found the use of force by corrections officers particularly common in areas without video surveillance cameras. Bharara's team also found that where video was available to his staff for the investigation, an estimated 30% of the surveillance footage that should have been available was "missing."

Bharara added that "zero to very few [staff] were disciplined" during the U.S. Attorney's investigation of Rikers Island correctional staff. The findings in the report call for the city to ensure that staff are held accountable for the use of unnecessary force.

Rikers' teenage violence problem extends beyond the pervasive culture of excessive force by its staff, with the report also finding that there were 845 reported inmate-on-inmate fights involving adolescents in the two jails that were part of the study — an increase from 795 reported fights in 2012.

The report also found that on a typical day 15 to 25% of the adolescent population was in punitive segregation — basically, solitary confinement.

Attorney General Eric Holder called the violence and excessive use of solitary confinement "inappropriate and unacceptable" in a press release included with the U.S. Attorney's report.

"When it comes to our young people — incarceration is used to deter, punish, and ultimately rehabilitate, not merely to warehouse and forget," he said.

"The adolescents in Rikers are walled off from the public, but they are not walled off from the Constitution," Bharara said Monday. The U.S. Attorney noted that most of the young men at Rikers are pre-trial detainees who have not been convicted of a crime.

"[Inmates] are entitled to be detained safely and in accordance with their Constitutional rights — not consigned to a corrections crucible that seems more inspired by Lord Of The Flies than any legitimate philosophy of human detention."

On the recent media coverage surrounding controversy at Rikers Island, Bharara replied, "the papers are full of stories." His office's report follows a six-month investigation by the New York Times that found 129 inmates suffered serious injuries in altercations with Rikers Island correctional staff. Of those inmates, 77% had received a mental illness diagnosis, the Times found.

The 71-page report on the plight of teenagers at Rikers, delivered to Mayor Bill de Blasio's office on Monday, contains 70 recommendations for changes that the U.S. Attorney's Office would like to see the the city make concerning the treatment of adolescents at Rikers Island.

Most noteworthy, the U.S. Attorney's first recommendation is that the city of New York house adolescents at a D.O.C. jail instead of on Rikers Island.

The Mayor and the city have 49 days to respond to the U.S. Attorney's office's findings.

Read the U.S. Attorney's Office investigation of adolescent treatment at Rikers Island.