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Remarks by Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta at the Press Conference to Announce the Department's Intervention to Remedy Unconstitutional Conditions of Confinement for Youth on Rikers Island


New York City, NY
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Preet.  It is an honor to join you to announce the filing of this important piece of litigation.  The enforcement of the nation’s civil rights laws is a partnership between the Civil Rights Division and United States Attorneys across this country.  Your office has been a leader in this effort and you and your team have undertaken many important civil rights initiatives, including your critical work on Rikers Island. 

As Preet mentioned, we are here today to announce our intervention in a class action suit against New York City over a pattern and practice of excessive force and violence in New York City jails on Rikers Island that violate the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates.

The authority to deprive individuals of their liberty and place them in a prison or a jail is one of the most profound powers of government.  With the exercise of that power comes the responsibility to ensure that at least minimum standards of care and protection are observed.  Our constitution recognizes that individuals who are incarcerated have the right to reasonable protection from violence, and to be provided basic necessities of life.  These are not only essential constitutional principles, but good public policy and fundamental to public safety and the safety of correctional staff.  When governments fail to meet these basic responsibilities, the Department of Justice stands ready to appeal to the Courts to ensure that basic rights are respected.  Today, we are doing just that -- taking legal action to ensure that critically important reforms are put in place to address conduct reflecting the culture of violence at Rikers Island that has violated the constitutional rights of New York City’s youngest inmates.

The mandate to ensure safe and humane jail conditions is never more important than when we incarcerate young people.  The findings of the investigation of the United States Attorney’s Office can only be described as deeply disturbing.  Young people are subject to unnecessary and excessive violence by staff, and to the overuse of punitive segregation.  They are not protected from other inmates.  This suit is essential to bring urgent and necessary, sustainable change to the conditions at Rikers Island through a court enforceable agreement.

The Civil Rights Division works to address unconstitutional conditions in prisons, jails and juvenile facilities across this nation.   For example, from Cook County, Illinois to New Orleans, Louisiana to Muscogee, Oklahoma, we have reached cooperative agreements that ensure that people in prison are treated humanely and consistent with the constitution.  From that work we have learned that, sadly, Rikers is not alone.  In far too many places, youth held in adult jails are subject to abhorrent and abusive conditions. 

We have also learned that mistreatment, violence and neglect are not inevitable.  The problems we see on Rikers Island can be fixed.   Reform works and the changes we seek will not only ensure that the rights of youthful inmates are protected, but will make a safer work place for corrections staff and promote public safety. 

Most prisoners return to their communities following incarceration.  If our compassion does not motivate us to ensure that youthful prisoners are treated with a minimum of decency, our self-interest demands it.   The conditions in which they are confined, the services that they are provided and the opportunities that they are given are critical to their ability to succeed when they come home.   We can make kids better or worse by the way we treat them while they are locked up.

Moreover, the adverse and dangerous conditions that prevail on Rikers Island place the lives and safety of staff at risk.  It is clear from our investigation that corrections officers do not have adequate programmatic options to deal with an admittedly complex and difficult population.  The risk is compounded by the failure to give staff sufficient policy guidance, necessary training, support through supervision and important accountability systems.  These systems failures create a toxic mix that harms prisoners and staff alike.

We recognize that the city has taken initial steps to start reform.  We applaud the Mayor for his public commitment to fixing the problems.  We are committed to working with the city to get at core issues.  Through this litigation, we seek a court enforceable agreement to ensure that:

  • excess force will be prohibited, that staff will be trained to deescalate and maintain control without excessive force and that when force is used inappropriately it will be identified and addressed;
  • That necessary steps will be taken to protect youth from violence; and
  • That other necessary measures are taken to ensure that the rights of adolescent inmates are protected.

It is our sincere hope that we can resolve these issues with the city through a court enforceable agreement with a monitor in order to implement sustainable systemic reforms.  We also hope that this matter can be resolved quickly so that all available resources can be directed at fixing the problems and not in litigation.  Thank you.

Updated August 19, 2016