​Will More Cameras, New Rules for Guards, and Federal Oversight Fix Rikers Island?

The scariest island in America is finally poised to see some big changes thanks to a legal settlement reached Monday.

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Jun 23 2015, 8:00pm

Rikers Island. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Last August, the Department of Justice released a 79-page report that parsed through the brutality at New York City's Rikers Island, the second-largest jail in America.

After a two-and-a-half-year investigation, US Attorney Preet Bharara's office found that a "deep-seated culture of violence" prevailed on the detention complex, which sits north of Queens. Correction officers were routinely beating inmates, including those who were mentally ill. Use of force complaints had gone widely underreported, and gang violence was out of control. Needless to say, the jail was a civil rights mess, and the report itself came after a class-action lawsuit, Nunez v. City of New York, was filed by the Legal Aid Society and other lawyers in 2012 alleging glaring excesses by guards. (The feds joined the suit in December.)

Since then, Mayor Bill de Blasio, along with his Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte, has tried to stop the bleeding. He ended solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-olds, created a new unit for the jail's most violent inmates—which members of the press recently had the chance to tour—and instituted more mental health programs. Still, violence at the jail has continued to make headlines. And the suicide of Kalief Browder—a teenager who was notoriously held at Rikers for three years without trial—has been a black eye for America's largest city.

At a press conference earlier this month, Bharara argued that the mayor's efforts simply were not enough. "Every day that goes by where we don't have enforceable and enduring reform at Rikers Island is one day too many," he said.

That day may have finally arrived.

In a far-reaching settlement announced Monday, NYC reached an agreement with all the parties in the Nunez case, nearly three years from the day it was filed in federal court. In a seven-page letter obtained by Capital New York, the US Attorney's office detailed an array of unprecedented measures that will be implemented in the coming months on Rikers.

At face value, these are easily the most serious reforms aimed at cleaning up the massive jail complex in its bloodstained history.

Use of force complaints will now carry "robust requirements," and a new flagging system will alert staff members to the identities of guards with violent streaks. The guards themselves will also face a tougher hiring process to weed out those with gang affiliations, a move that just preceded Tuesday's New York Daily News investigation finding 112 "red-flagged" guards still holding a job on Rikers. (In January, an NYC Department of Investigation—or DOI—probe found over a third of recent hires had major blotches on their records that should have drawn more scrutiny.)

The settlement also calls for the installation of thousands of new cameras on the island, as well as a pilot program where body cameras will be worn by a number of correction officers (COs) at all times. And solitary will be barred for anyone under the age of 18, as well as for 18-year-olds with major mental health woes.

Then there's appointment of a federal monitor, a position that will be filled by the lawyer Steve J. Martin. He'll be in charge of watching over said reforms' progress, and the effect they have on Rikers's culture. (It's worth noting that both the New York Police Department and Rikers Island will have their own federal monitors, which says something about the state of criminal justice in New York City.)

"Federal prosecutors will remain vigilant to ensure that with a federal monitor, reporting to a federal court, the Constitution protects each and every person within the walls of Rikers Island," Bharara said in a statement.

The head of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division, Vanita Gupta, called the settlement "a model for corrections reform throughout the country."

"For too long, New York City prisoners have suffered dreadful injuries at the hands of staff—fractured facial bones, traumatic brain injuries, internal bleeding—from excessive and sometimes brutal force," Mary Lynne Werlwas, one of the Legal Aid lawyers in the Nunez case, said in a statement. "This agreement seeks to end this culture of violence and bring the City into the mainstream of professional corrections."

According to the New York Times, from here on out, the Department of Correction (DOC) will be required to send "any potential criminal use of force complaint" to the US Attorney's office after passing it along to NYC's own Department of Investigation. This provision was reportedly a matter of debate between the city and the DOJ, and it appears the feds won out in the end.

(VICE has reached out to DOC for comment, but we have yet to hear back.)


Check out the VICE News documentary on the long road to reform at the notoriously violent Salinas Valley State Prison in California.


The deal itself comes as a busy time, both for Rikers and the city. As of Monday night, the city's entire correctional system had been on lockdown, stemming from an outburst of violence on Rikers that included a slashing of three separate inmates, one of which occurred on an inmate transport bus, according to the Times. The settlement is a desperately-needed piece of good news for Mayor de Blasio's criminal justice agenda, and should please his supporters. (Of course, those very some constituents are already pissed that, also on Monday, and after initially opposing the idea, the mayor announced that the city will be adding 1,300 officers to the nation's largest police force.)

Still, the agreement was lauded by de Blasio and Commissioner Ponte as an exhaustive—and much-needed—restructuring of the scariest island in America.

"Today's settlement builds upon the important changes this administration is bringing to our correctional system and reinforces the necessity of Commissioner Ponte's current reforms on Rikers Island," the mayor said in a statement. "We have a moral imperative to ensure every New Yorker in this city's care is treated with decency and respect."

The agreement, which is expected to be formally submitted by the end of the month, must be approved in federal court before it can be implemented.

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