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DOJ finds NYC's Rikers Island breaches rights of young inmates

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City's Department of Correction routinely violates the constitutional rights of male teenagers at the Rikers Island jail complex by tolerating a "culture of violence" that permits the savage beating of young inmates, according to a federal report released on Monday.

The 79-page report, prepared by the U.S. Justice Department, describes a fearful and brutalized environment in which correction officers regularly batter young men, sometimes after they are handcuffed and dragged out of sight of surveillance cameras. The excessive use of force goes well beyond what is needed to control the inmates, it said.

In hundreds of violent incidents between 2011 and 2013, investigators from the U.S. attorney's office for New York's Southern District found an inexplicable number of adolescents were left with head injuries, broken bones or wounds that needed stitching.

At a press conference, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called Rikers, one of the country's largest jail complexes, "a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort."

In one case a year ago, a team of correction officers kicked and punched four teenaged inmates and hit them with radios, batons and broomsticks even though they were in handcuffs, the report said. The inmates were then taken to another area, handcuffed again and the beating resumed. All four eventually ended up in the hospital, but only after treatment was delayed, the report said.

The officers said they were acting in self-defense, although Bharara's investigators said the similar language used in their reports may be evidence of collusion.

Although Bharara's team only focused on adolescent inmates, the report said there were indications conditions were similar in the general population.

Bharara's office sent Mayor Bill de Blasio and Joseph Ponte, the corrections commissioner, the report on Monday, notifying them that they had 49 days to respond to dozens of recommendations or else risk a civil lawsuit and the possibility of a federal judge ordering changes.

Among the boldest recommendations is moving adolescents off of Rikers Island entirely and housing them elsewhere in the city.

The report comes as de Blasio, who took office in January, is grappling to reform the city's police force after a federal judge last year ruled that its use of stop-and-frisk tactics breached the constitutional rights of the black and Latino men who were disproportionately targeted.

Ponte said in a statement he or the city had already ordered better training and the installation of more security cameras, among other measures, since he was appointed commissioner after de Blasio took office in January.

"I am committed to the safety and well-being of all DOC inmates, but I am especially focused on radically improving security and outcomes for the adolescent population," his statement said. He did not dispute the report's findings.

'HOLD IT DOWN!'

Several hundred male teenagers are housed at Rikers on any given day. Most are awaiting trial, either denied or unable to afford bail. Many are particularly vulnerable because just over half of them have a mental illness, investigators said.

In the 2013 fiscal year, when the average daily population of male adolescent inmates was 682, officers reported using force on 565 occasions, resulting in 1,057 injuries, the report said, noting that the figures were likely underreported. That year, adolescents needed emergency medical treatment 459 times.

The report said that medical staff and teachers were told to look away when officers used force, so as not to become witnesses. Officers frequently warn inmates after using force on them to "hold it down," widely understood to mean to not report the incident. Officers often cried "stop resisting" even when there was no resistance, aiming to make it easier to concoct a false incidence report.

Jail managers did not escape criticism, either, with the report saying there was a "fundamental disconnect" between administrators cocooned in a "high-end corporate environment off Rikers" and correction officers on the island, located in the East River between the boroughs of Queens and the Bronx.

Dora Schriro, who served the Correction Department's commissioner during the period that was investigated, is now the commissioner of Connecticut's emergency services department. She said in a statement on Monday that she "focused on improving conditions" throughout her tenure.

During that time, she said, "there was an appreciable increase in referrals of staff to the inspector general for criminal prosecution for misconduct including excessive force."

The main union for the city's correction officers said the department had been "plagued with mismanagement for years" and that it welcomed some of the report's suggestions. But it insisted that an officer has a right to use "whatever force is necessary" when assaulted.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Jim Loney, Eric Beech and Eric Walsh)

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