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Tuesday, June 11, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

U.S. to Enter Class Action Suit By Rikers Teens

MANHATTAN (CN) - Four months after condemning the "Lord of the Flies" treatment of Rikers teens, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara praised Mayor Bill de Blasio for stopping the solitary confinement of juveniles - and also sued him to make sure this and other reforms stick.

Bharara formally announced that his office would intervene in a lawsuit filed three years ago by former Rikers Mark Nunez, whose case snowballed into a class action on behalf of tens of thousands of others in 2012.

A federal probe into the abuse of Rikers teens in pretrial confinement came to light on Aug. 4 this year, as the U.S. Attorney's office sent de Blasio a 64-page letter laying out grisly conditions inside the Robert N. Davoren Center, a juvenile lockup.

This summer's announcement revealed that, on a "typical day," between 15 and 25 percent that jail's population languished in solitary confinement six-by-eight foot cells of the Central Punitive Segregation Unit, where they spend 23 hours a day in solitary confinement.

De Blasio took action on this issue on Wednesday evening, stating that Rikers would stop punitive isolation for teenage inmates.

Although Bharara praised the mayor for taking this step, he added that this change does not settle the matter.

Only a "court-approved settlement agreement" can lead to "permanent, enforceable and verifiable" reform, he said.

Bharara emphasized that guards beat inmates with "alarming frequency" in areas of the prison outside video surveillance, and a "powerful code of silence" has kept the prison a "dehumanizing environment."

In 2003, an average of 682 teenagers in these jails bore the brunt of 565 "reported staff use of force incidents" that led to 1,057 injuries, his Aug. 4 letter stated.

"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," it continued.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called federal intervention in the Nunez class action "an important step to ensure the safety and constitutional rights of young people incarcerated at Rikers Island."

"We've seen alarming evidence of unnecessary and excessive use of force against juveniles, as well as a systemic failure to protect them from violence and deeply troubling - and potentially scarring - use of solitary confinement," Holder said. "This action allows the Justice Department to seek necessary reforms to remedy these unlawful conditions, to ensure fair treatment, and to provide all incarcerated young people with the protections, and opportunities to build better futures, that they deserve."

The four months of negotiation between the U.S. Attorney's office and New York City has been rocky, at times.

In September, The New York Times reported that de Blasio's new Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte promoted ex-Rikers warden William Clemons and his then-deputy Turhan Gumesdere, who were found in an internal document to have "abdicated all responsibility" in reporting statistics of fights involving teens at the prison.

On Thursday, Bharara said that he did not want to "overdramatize" his relationship with the department he just sued.

"Just because they're on the other side of the 'v.' doesn't mean they have to be scorched-earth adversaries," he said.

The city has consented to the federal intervention in the Nunez case, but that does not mean the parties are on the same page, a 4-page motion to intervene indicates.

"Over the past four and a half months, the United States and the city of New York have discussed these matters, including most recently together with the plaintiffs in the Nunez action, but have been unable to reach agreement as to lasting, verifiable, and enforceable reforms to remedy the unconstitutional conditions set forth in the United States' findings letter," the motion states.

Without explicitly stating his office's goal, Bharara intimated that "outside, independent oversight" would be necessary.

De Blasio's office and the attorney for Nunez did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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