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Press Release

Department Of Justice Takes Legal Action To Address Pattern And Practice Of Excessive Force And Violence At Rikers Island Jails That Violates The Constitutional Rights Of Young Male Inmates

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Southern District of New York

Eric Holder, the Attorney General of the United States, Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Vanita Gupta, the Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights for the Department of Justice, announced today that the United States has taken legal action to ensure that critically important reforms are put in place to address conduct at Rikers Island that has violated the constitutional rights of New York City’s youngest inmates, who are between the ages of 16 and 18 (“Young Inmates”). Specifically, the Department of Justice has filed a motion seeking the Court’s permission to join and become a plaintiff in a pending class action lawsuit against New York City, Nunez v. City of New York (the “Nunez Action”), which alleges that the Department of Correction (“DOC”) has engaged in a pattern and practice of using unnecessary and excessive force against inmates. The Department has taken this legal step as part of its ongoing effort to ensure that DOC implements all needed institutional reforms promptly, and that these reforms are lasting, verifiable, and enforceable through the judicial process.

Attorney General Eric Holder said: “With this filing, the Department of Justice is taking 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. 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.”

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said: “Sometimes it’s the case that bureaucracy can get in the way of reform-minded thinking and comprehensive cultural change. We hope that won’t be the case here. We welcome the aspirations articulated by Commissioner Ponte but we hope those aspirations will find concrete expression in the form of permanent, enforceable, and verifiable terms in a court-approved settlement agreement. The devil, as they say, is in the details and we have come to the conclusion that joining the pending case as a formal party is the best and most efficient way to get those details done. That is why we are now taking the steps necessary to carry out our responsibility under the law. Given the longstanding sad state of affairs at Rikers Island, our impatience is more than understandable. As I’ve said before, one way or another, we will get enduring and enforceable reform at Rikers Island.”

Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta said: “Today we are taking legal action to ensure that critically important reforms are put in place to address the culture of violence and overuse of punitive segregation at Rikers Island that has violated the constitutional rights of New York City’s youngest inmates. We stand ready to work with the City to remedy these deeply disturbing conditions for the safety of confined youth, remedies that will ultimately also promote public safety and the safety of correctional officers.”

On August 4, 2014, the Department issued a report that concluded that “a deep-seated culture of violence is pervasive throughout the adolescent facilities at Rikers, and DOC staff routinely use force not as a last resort, but instead as a means to control the adolescent population and punish disorderly or disrespectful behavior.” The report urged the City to adopt and implement over 70 specific remedial measures. Although DOC’s new leadership has taken some positive steps in response to the report with respect to the 16- and 17-year-old population, including reducing the inmate-to-staff ratio, developing new programming, and moving toward eliminating the use of punitive segregation, much more needs to be done.

The Department’s proposed 36-page Complaint-in-Intervention (“Complaint”), filed today along with a motion to intervene in the Nunez Action, alleges that the City has engaged in a pattern and practice of violating the constitutional rights of Young Inmates, and that the City’s deliberate indifference to these constitutional rights has caused these inmates serious physical, psychological, and emotional harm. Like the August 4, 2014, report, the Complaint focuses on use of force by staff, inmate-on-inmate violence, and the use of punitive segregation.

Specifically, the Complaint alleges:

  • Staff use force against Young Inmates with alarming frequency. In Fiscal Year 2014, there were 553 reported staff use of force incidents involving Young Inmates at the Robert D. Davoren Center (“RNDC”) and the Eric M. Taylor Center (“EMTC”), the two facilities that housed most Young Inmates. These incidents resulted in 1,088 injuries.
  • Inmate-on-inmate fights and assaults are pervasive in large part because inmates are inadequately supervised by inexperienced and poorly trained officers. In Fiscal Year 2014, there were 657 reported inmate-on-inmate fights involving Young Inmates at RNDC and EMTC.
  • Staff use of force and inmate-on-inmate fights and assaults have resulted in an alarming number of serious injuries to Young Inmates, including broken jaws, broken orbital bones, broken noses, long bone fractures, and lacerations requiring stitches.
  • Staff frequently punch, strike, or kick Young Inmates in the head or facial area.
  • Force is used as a means to punish Young Inmates, and staff unnecessarily continue to use force against inmates who already have been restrained.
  • Force is used in response to inmate verbal taunts and insults.
  • Specialized response teams, including probe and cell extraction teams, use excessive force.
  • Staff regularly tell inmates to “stop resisting,” even though the inmate has been completely subdued, to justify the use of force.
  • Use of excessive force is common in areas outside video surveillance coverage. DOC recently transferred many 18-year-old inmates to housing units that have no video surveillance at all.

The Complaint further alleges that, notwithstanding a long and troubled history of pervasive use of force against inmates at Rikers, the City has for years failed to address systemic deficiencies, including:

  • Failure to ensure that use of force is accurately reported, and allowing a powerful code of silence to persist.
  • Failure to conduct thorough and comprehensive investigations into use of force incidents.
  • Failure to appropriately discipline staff for using excessive and unnecessary force.
  • Failure to ensure that inmates are adequately supervised.
  • Failure to implement an adequate age-appropriate classification system.
  • Failure to provide staff with effective training on the proper use of force and how to appropriately manage youth.

In addition, the Complaint asserts that the City has engaged in a pattern and practice of placing Young Inmates in punitive segregation at an alarming rate and for excessive periods of time.

Since issuing its report in August, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has had several meetings with the City’s Law Department regarding the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s proposed remedial measures. Some of these discussions have included attorneys representing the Nunez plaintiffs, who have been engaging in settlement discussions with the City for several months. However, thus far, although there has been some constructive dialogue, the City has been unwilling to commit to an enforceable agreement including the type of reforms and oversight that are necessary to fully address the long-standing problems at Rikers and safeguard the constitutional rights of inmates.

Mr. Bharara thanked the Board of Correction for its continuing assistance in connection with this matter.

This case is being handled by the Office’s Civil Rights Unit. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jeffrey K. Powell and Emily E. Daughtry are in charge of the case.

Nunez v. City of NY, et al. U.S. Motion to Intervene Notice of Motion
Nunez v. City of NY, et al. US Motion to Intervene Memorandum of Law
Nunez v. City of NY, et al. US Complaint-In-Intervention
Nunez v. City of NY, et al. U.S. Complaint-in-Intervention Exhibit A

Updated May 15, 2015

Press Release Number: 14-379