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Rikers guards are beating up inmates while New York figures out how to close the jail

by Keegan Hamilton
Apr 4 2017, 11:10am

Guards at New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail complex routinely pummel inmates and lie about it afterwards, according to a new report from an independent court-appointed federal monitor.

The report, published three days after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he backs a long-term plan to close Rikers, describes “seriously problematic issues” regarding use of force by guards, particularly against teenage inmates.

It’s the federal monitor’s third damning report since 2015, when New York City signed a consent decree with the Department of Justice to take steps to curb violence at Rikers, a 10,000-inmate penal colony on the East River. The latest report noted the slow pace of reforms, and said prisoners are still subjected to brutal force at an “alarming rate.”

The monitor found that guards often use “head strikes, wall slams, and violent takedowns often involving neck/chokeholds,” and face “significant delays in disciplinary action” even when they go too far. The jailers were also faulted for frequently using pepper spray “in retaliation for an inmate’s verbal insults, threats, or swearing.”

“Often, these incidents are not reported accurately and in some cases not reported at all,” the report said. “There have been instances in which Inmates have been subjected to high levels of force causing injuries, only to be followed by delays in providing needed medical attention. Restrained Inmates have been dragged and/or lifted by their restraints and even kicked while prone in restraints.”

The report seemingly bolsters the case that the troubled jail is beyond reform and needs to be shut down entirely. On March 31, the mayor said he supports a plan to close Rikers within 10 years by reducing the inmate population and building new facilities around the city.

While the plan has the support of the City Council and many criminal justice reform advocates, it will cost billions of dollars and face stiff opposition from Correction Officers Benevolent Association, the powerful prison guard union. The plan to build smaller jails across the five boroughs will also face resistance at the community level. The federal monitor “does not take a position” on whether Rikers should be shuttered.

Even in the best-case scenario, it will take years for the city to close Rikers. In the meantime, as the monitor’s report shows, the jail continues to be plagued by violence and impunity, with no immediate solution in sight.

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