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Use of Force Against Inmates at NYC Jails Hit ‘All-Time High’ Last Year

Rikers Island jail
Rikers Island jail
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

City correction officers’ use of force against inmates reached a new “all-time high” last year, with incidents climbing even as the jails population dropped, the latest report by the federal monitor overseeing the system found.

The overall number of force incidents rose to an average of close to 600 per month over the last six months of 2019, the report released Friday said.

By contrast, there were about 390 uses of force per month and 9,803 inmates when the federal monitor issued his first report in May 2016.

Meanwhile, use of force incidents grew at an even higher rate in the second half of 2019 in a Bronx youth detention center watched by the monitor.

“Too often, staff are hyper-confrontational, aggressive, lack effective interpersonal

communication skills and do not exhaust non-physical interventions before resorting to force,” the 338-page oversight report said.

The report covers a period before the coronavirus pandemic swept into New York, spurring inmate releases that have brought the city’s jails population down to 3,990.

‘Unprofessional Conduct’

The federal monitor, Steve Martin, of Austin, Texas, was appointed in the summer of 2015 as part of a sweeping settlement tied to a class-action suit by a group of city inmates who alleged abuses by officers that included excessive solitary confinement and beatings.

Then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara later joined the so-called Nunez case, named after the lead defendant, citing a “deep-seated culture of violence” against teen inmates at Rikers Island.

Under the terms of the court settlement, the Department of Correction has taken measures intended to to reduce the use of physical force by officers, revising its policy in 2017 to order officers to avoid blows to the head with fists or batons unless their lives are being threatened.

Still, staff culture continues to be “plagued” by “a pattern of unprofessional conduct” that includes misusing pepper spray, twisting inmate’s wrists while escorting them and wielding “head strikes” during violent confrontations, the report said.

The Legal Aid Society said the monitor’s ninth report ”exposes the grim reality that the leadership of the New York City jails is unwilling or unable to supervise and curb brutality by uniformed corrections staff.”

‘More to be Done’

Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann said the department was making improvements, including instituting a system to better track all uses of force and installing 7,800 cameras.

“Still, there is more to be done, and we will continue to work with the monitor to achieve full compliance and lasting culture change in our jails,” she said in a statement.

Despite the drop in headcount, jail officials are “managing a smaller but increasingly violent population,” Brann added, noting 138 inmates were involved in 10 or more use of force incidents in 2019.

The monitor, though, found 323 “avoidable” uses of force and 85 “unnecessary” ones in the latter half of 2019, according to the report. That’s down from the 492 avoidable incidents and 126 unnecessary ones over the previous six-month stretch.

And despite the decline in inmates, the number of incidents resulting in a serious injury to at least one person has more than doubled over the past four years, from 74 in 2016 to 166 over the last six months in 2019, according to the report.

The monitor also blamed jail supervisors for sometimes escalating disputes.

“At the scene of an incident, supervisors often fail to intervene, allowing subordinate staff to escalate incidents or become part of the problem themselves by antagonizing, using profanity, and otherwise behaving inappropriately,” the report said.

‘Covert Cover-up’ Suggested

Jail officers and supervisors are rarely disciplined or criminally charged, statistics cited in the report show.

Only one tenured staff member has been fired for a use of force incident since January 2017, the report said. Some 13 other staffers have retired or resigned after the department sought to fire them, according to the federal monitor.

Since 2014, Correction Department investigators have referred 76 employees for criminal prosecution for improper uses of force, the report said. Just four of those cases have resulted in criminal charges and the majority have been sent back to be handled internally by the department, the monitor said.

The department has cleared a backlog of over 500 investigations into questionable uses of force, according to the report.

Jail officials have also rolled out a new dedicated unit within its Investigations Division called the “Intake Squad” to conduct initial probes of all use of force incidents.

But jail investigators don’t always review relevant video and other evidence as part of their probes, the monitor said.

Department officials also appear to be downgrading some incidents: At least 25 cases with video or other evidence strongly suggesting that force was used didn’t get reported between January 2017 and December 2019, the report said.

“Some of these incidents … suggest a more covert cover-up of likely use of force violations,” the monitor said.

Youth Facilities Rocked

The only juvenile facility to be overseen by the federal monitor — Horizon Juvenile Center in the Bronx — was “plagued by disorder,” according to the monitor, with violence against the teen prisoners skyrocketing by 54% in the second half of 2019, compared to the previous six months.

The Horizon Juvenile Center in the South Bronx. Jason Scott Jones/THE CITY

The federal monitor blamed the spike in part on the destabilizing effects of an ongoing change in management of the facility.

“The period of transition from DOC to [Administration for Children’s Services] has been a rocky road for both youth and staff and has had significant negative consequences for facility safety,” the report said.

“The prevalence of unnecessary, excessive or poorly executed uses of force” by ACS staff was also cited for increased violence, after that agency assumed primary control of the facility between October and December of 2019.

While federal oversight of the facility is due to end by the fall, the monitor suggested “potential ongoing oversight of this age group.”

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