MANHATTAN (CN) – Federal investigators found that the treatment of teenagers locked up in Rikers Island “seems more inspired by ‘Lord of the Flies’ than any legitimate philosophy of humane detention,” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Monday.
The conference detailed the results of a more than two year investigation into adolescents in Rikers Island jails and prisons for adolescent inmates.
Other than North Carolina, New York is the only state that automatically charges 16-year-old as adults. New York City puts most of its pre-trial teenage inmates in the Robert N. Davoren Center and the sentenced adolescent males in the Eric M. Taylor Center.
On a “typical day,” between 15 and 25 percent of Rikers teenagers languish in six-by-eight foot cells of the Central Punitive Segregation Unit, where they spend 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, according to a press release of the findings.
In 2003, there were an average of 682 teenagers in these jails and 565 “reported staff use of force incidents” that led to 1,057 injuries, according to the investigation. There were reportedly 845 inmate-on-inmate fights in the Robert N. Davoren Center and Eric M. Taylor center alone that same year.
U.S. Attorney Bharara laid out more grisly details in a 64-page letter to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio with an additional 15 pages of appendices.
“From June 2012 through early July 2013, adolescents sustained a total of 239 head injuries, and were twice as likely to sustain such injuries as was the adult population,” the letter states.
Department of Health data uncovered 96 “suspected fractures” from September 2011 through August 2012.
Teenage inmates had to be taken to emergency medical service 459 times last year, according to the letter.
Bharara told reporters that the findings are based on analysis roughly 200 use of force documents, video evidence and interviews with inmates and staff.
The report found that the “most egregious inmate beatings frequently occur in locations without video surveillance.”
One of these areas, the intake cells at the Robert N. Davoren Center, are reportedly known as the “forget about me” cells.
In addition, the Department of Corrections reported that it “had lost or was otherwise unable to locate over 35% of those video recordings,” raising concerns about “possible tampering with important evidence,” the letter states.
Bharara said that his office has been in regular contact with the Bronx District Attorney’s office about possible legal action against corrections officer, but he added that “zero or very few” have been disciplined to date.
The Bronx District Attorney’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mayor de Blasio’s office now has 49 days by statute to respond to the letter, which lists more than 70 recommendations for reform. They include increased surveillance, training, accountability measures and a ban on solitary for adolescents diagnosed with mental health disorders.
Earlier this year, de Blasio replaced the corrections commissioner with the reform-minded Joseph Ponte, known for curbing solitary confinement levels by 60 percent in his last post in Maine.
The Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
The proposals stop short of abolishing the practice of placing teenagers in solitary confinement.
In a press statement, the New York Civil Liberties Union’s executive director Donna Lieberman called solitary confinement “the most extreme form of punishment possible outside of the death penalty.”
“Today’s report must sound the alarm for urgent reform at Rikers. Adolescents need normal human interaction to grow and develop – and to be rehabilitated,” she wrote. “For the sake of the incarcerated youth, prison staff and our communities, New York City must immediately embrace treatment and rehabilitation over punishment and isolation.”
Attorney General Eric Holder also struck a note of reform in a statement.
“The extremely high rates of violence and excessive use of solitary confinement for adolescent males uncovered by this investigation are inappropriate and unacceptable,” he said. “The Department of Justice is dedicated to ensuring the effectiveness, safety and integrity of our criminal justice systems.”
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