DOJ Report Reveals How Rikers Guards Got Away With Brutalizing Teenagers

Rikers Island juvenile inmatesAPRikers Island juvenile detention facility inmates walk in single file.

A disturbing Justice Department report alleges correction officers at New York’s Rikers Island routinely use excessive force against 16- to 18-year-old male inmates, and it sheds light on the tactics they used to cover up their beatings.

Relying on records and interviews from 2011 to 2013, the report finds the New York City Department of Correction (DOC) violated the constitutional rights of teenage inmates by failing to protect them from “the rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force by DOC staff.”

Jail staff allegedly yelled “stop resisting” even when the teens weren’t putting up a fight, apparently to create a record justifying their use of force, aided by other officers who falsely reported they heard the inmate resisting.

The report also found a high number of unsettling incidents in areas of the jail with no video surveillance, such as classrooms, school hallways, search locations, clinics, intake holding pens, and individual cells. For that reason, the intake cells are reportedly known among inmates and staff as “forget about me” cells.

The report found evidence that as of Oct. 30, 2012, 43.7% of the 705 adolescents in custody had been subjected to the use of force by staff at least once. But the true number is thought to be higher due to incidents that went unreported.

When staff witness the use of force against inmates, a “powerful code of silence” allegedly prevents them from reporting the incidents in clear violation of policy. The report points to one glaring example of this so-called code of silence:

In April 2013, an inmate sustained facial injuries and contusions to his left shoulder after an officer struck him multiple times in the intake area of RNDC [Robert N. Davoren Center]. Video of the incident shows an officer standing idly by for several minutes just a few feet away. This officer did not submit a use of force witness report, and investigators noted that they would not have known he was even in that area had they not viewed the video.

Officers allegedly also tried to keep inmates from reporting excessive violence against them by staff, pressuring inmates to keep silent with the common warning phrase, “hold it down” — a code meaning “don’t report what happened,” according to the report.

Investigators even found evidence of such pressure during one of their visits to the jail. “As an officer was bringing an inmate to our consultant for an interview, our consultant heard the officer tell him that he didn’t have to tell our consultant ‘no damn story,'” the report stated.

New York is one of the few states to automatically prosecute 16-year-olds as adults, so the presence of teenagers in the city’s “grownup” jails like Rikers is not uncommon.

Business Insider called New York City Department of Correction Director of Media Relations Robin Campbell, who declined to comment about the report over the phone but suggested we send an email. However, he did not immediately reply to that email Monday afternoon.

You can read the full report, released today, here.

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