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Civil Rights

Justice Department, New York City Agree on Long-Overdue Rikers Island Reforms

— June 23, 2015


New York City’s Rikers Island Correctional Facility has long been noted for prisoner abuse Photo courtesy of Luiz C. Ribeiro / New York Post
New York City’s Rikers Island Correctional Facility has long been noted for prisoner abuse
Photo courtesy of Luiz C. Ribeiro / New York Post

The Justice Department and New York City officials have reached a preliminary agreement to reform one of the most notorious prisons in the U.S., New York’s Rikers Island Correctional Facility. The agreement comes after the office of U.S. Attorney extraordinaire, Preet Bharara, joined a class-action lawsuit last December regarding police brutality and other abuses. Bharara joined the lawsuit four months after penning a scathing report following a 2-year investigation into the “deep-seated culture of violence” towards teenage inmates at the prison. The New York Times reported separately that 129 teenagers were seriously injured during an 11-month period in 2013. There have also been over 100 stabbings at the prison in the past fiscal year, as well as three more stabbings on a correctional bus on Monday. The pending agreement also comes a week after Bharara charged two guards in the 2012 beating death of inmate, Ronald Spears. It also follows the controversy over the apparent suicide of inmate, Kalief Browder, who languished in the facility for three years without a trial. New York Mayor, Bill de Blasio said, “Today’s agreement represents another strong step toward our goal of reversing the decades of abuse on Rikers and building a culture of safety for officers and inmates alike.”

Bharara said, “This comprehensive framework requires the city to implement sweeping operational changes to fix a broken system and dismantle a decades-long culture of violence.” Among the reforms include the installation of 7,800 security cameras, a pilot program utilizing 100 body-cameras for correctional officers, a computer system that tracks officers with a history of use-of-force, and a key provision, new protocol for handling inmates under 18 years-old. The agreement requires prisoner under the age of 18 would be placed at a separate facility, one accessible to public transportation. Correctional officers will also be prohibited to strike prisoners in the head, neck, groin, kidneys, or spinal column, as well as prohibit kicking prisoners and chokeholds. In addition, the reforms mandate additional correctional officer training and a more thorough review process for the promotion of officers. The implementation will be supervised by former corrections officer and U.S. Counsel for the Texas prison system, federal monitor Steve J. Martin.

The deal still must be approved by de Blasio as there are a few small disagreements that need to be hammered out. The deal must also be approved by the Justice Department’s civil rights division as well as by federal judge, Laura Taylor Swain, who is overseeing the class-action lawsuit. The 11 remaining claimants in the suit are in the process of negotiating a settlement. De Blasio is confident about a resolution saying, “We fully expect a successful conclusion to this process within a few days.”Bharara has been impatient regarding the months of negotiations between the facility, the Justice Department, and city leaders, saying “Every day that goes by where we don’t have enforceable and enduring reform at Rikers Island is one day too many.” The reforms come in the wake of a national debate on police behavior, following the wave of the deaths caused by police use of force all throughout the country, including the chokehold that induced the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island last year. It also follows the candid remarks by Supreme Court Justices, Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer, who lambasted the treatment of prisoners and called the criminal justice system “broken.” Rikers Island has consistently rated near the top of “worst U.S. prisons” in media publications for years. These reforms, in the wake of the larger debate, add to the momentum for improvements to what appears to be an epidemic of police abuse.



New York Daily News – Reuven Blau and Stephen Rex Brown

New York Times – Benjamin Weiser, Michael Schwirtz, and Michael Winerip

New York Magazine – Jaime Fuller

Reuters – Nate Raymond




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