MANHATTAN (CN) – Rikers Island prisons will face the scrutiny of an independent monitor watching compliance with an early warning system, beefed up surveillance and other measures to clamp down on civil rights abuses, prosecutors told a judge on Monday.
Prosecutors revealed in a letter that the city agreed to 63 pages of conditions “intended to dismantle the decades-long culture of violence in the city jails, and create an environment that protects both inmates and correction officers alike.”
Attorney Steve Martin, who has monitored more than 700 jailhouses in the United States and abroad, has been tapped to oversee the wide-ranging reforms. These include the enforcement of a new use-of-force policy, disciplinary guidelines to punish misconduct, and a pilot program for body-worn cameras.
By Feb. 28, 2018, Rikers aims to have “complete camera coverage of the jails, with certain narrow exceptions such as the interior of shower areas and toilet areas,” prosecutors said in the letter.
Other terms of the deal aim to improve recruitment, training, supervision, anonymous reporting of violations and notifications to federal prosecutors.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara described the agreement as “groundbreaking” in a statement.
“This comprehensive framework requires the city to implement sweeping operational changes to fix a broken system and dismantle a decades-long culture of violence,” he said. “Its ongoing implementation will be overseen by the court and an independent federal monitor. 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.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio applauded the role that his Department of Corrections chief appointee Joseph Ponte played in the settlement.
“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,” de Blasio 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 announcement falls nearly a year Bharara likened Rikers teen lockups to the “Lord of the Flies” at a press conference on Aug. 4, 2014, announcing the results of a lengthy probe of abuses there.
The report found that, on a “typical day,” between 15 and 25 percent that jail’s population languished for 23 hours a day in solitary confinement in six-by-eight foot cells of the Central Punitive Segregation Unit. Prosecutors said that 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 in 2003, and many of these incidents took place away from video surveillance.
In December, Bharara’s office sued the city by intervening in a three-year-old lawsuit by former Rikers inmate Mark Nuñez, whose case grew into a class action on behalf of tens of thousands of others in 2012.
While the prosecutors’ probe centered on abuses toward teen inmates, the city’s agreement reforms Rikers prisons more broadly. Provisions covering teenage inmates are covered by separate terms, and the plaintiffs in the Nuñez lawsuit have reached “an agreement in principle” with the city to settle their claims on an individual basis, according to the letter.
More details about the individual settlements should come to light following the July 1 deadline for the completion of expert depositions in that case, prosecutors say.
In a separate statement, Ponte commented that Rikers reform “is well under way,” an apparent reference to the limitations his department agreed to on the use of solitary confinement in December.
“We look forward to implementing all elements of the agreement, and pledge to work closely with the federal monitor as we further establish a culture of safety at DOC,” Ponte said.
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