A four-month investigation by the New York Times has uncovered a regular pattern of prison officers at Rikers Island committing brutal attacks against inmates in the New York prison. The investigation found that the vast majority of inmates who are attacked are mentally ill and in handcuffs when abused by officers.
The media organization found evidence of “scores of assaults through “interviews with current and former inmates, correction officers and mental health clinicians.” It also reviewed hundreds of pages of investigative, jail and legal records, including a secret internal study by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which it refuses to release under the state’s Freedom of Information law.
According to the study reviewed by the Times, “Over an 11-month period last year, 129 inmates suffered ‘serious injuries’—ones beyond the capacity of doctors at the jail’s clinics to treat—in altercations with correction department staff members.”
These injuries apparently included “fractures, wound requiring stitches, head injuries,” etc. Most significantly, the study showed 77 percent of the inmates, who were seriously injured, have mental illnesses.
Eighty percent of the cases involved inmates who were reportedly “beaten after they were handcuffed.”
In “73 percent of the violent encounters with officers,” inmates were injured in the head or by a blow to the face, which according to Correction Department regulations is supposed to be the “last resort when restraining an inmate.” One third of assaults led to broken bones and at least 40 percent of injuries resulted in stitches.
The Times was able to figure out specific details related to all 129 cases where inmates were seriously injured. It decided to highlight 24 of what it considered to be the “most serious incidents.” (Also, attacks on inmates which were not in the secret internal study were examined by the Times.)
Shakima Smith-White’s son, Michael Megginson, who suffers from bipolar disorder, had been in state psychiatric hospitals for three years. The hospital would typically give him a shot “in his backside to knock him out,” according to Smith-White. Megginson would be put in a padded room until he calmed down. However, that is not how guards at Rikers Island handled her son after he was “jailed on a robbery charge.”
“At the jail, on October 8,” the Times reported, “after a violent encounter with guards, he was found by clinicians curled up on the concrete floor of a holding cell, his wrist fractured, an eye swollen shut and bruises all over his body.”
The following cases are highlighted by the Times:
—Jose Bautista, who tried to hang himself with his underwear, and when officers rushed in to cut him down, was made to lie with his face down as officers punched him so hard that he “suffered a perforated bowl” and required “emergency surgery.”
—Carlos Gonzalez, who suffers from depression and schizophrenia, was thrown against a wall and ordered to apologize to a guard after he refused to stop holding hands with his fiancée in the visitors room. Guards allegedly punched him in the face when he would not apologize as loud as the guards ordered. His eardrum ruptured. His jumpsuit became covered in blood.
—Brian Mack, who was convicted of grand larceny, complained about guards stealing food from inmates. This led a captain to retaliate against him and strike him in the eye with a radio. Another officer then punched him in the jaw.
—Andre Lane, who was in solitary confinement in a cellblock that is supposed to be for inmates with mental illnesses, was beat by several guards. He had become angry at guards when he did not get his dinner. He splashed liquid on them and he was handcuffed to a gurney and taken to a clinic examination room, where video cameras could not see him. And while he was being beaten, medical staff begged for guards to stop hurting him.
Lane was interviewed by the Times for this story. He recalled, “One officer took a knuckle brace and put it on his hands, just started hitting me, boom, boom,” and, “My head started leaking blood, and that’s when I started getting dizzy and dizzy and dizzy.” He later became unconscious.
In February, a 56-year-old African-American homeless veteran, who was on “anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medication,” according to the Associated Press, baked to death at Rikers Island. The cell was over 100 degrees. (When AP contacted his mother, it had been a month since his death and nobody had notified his mother he was dead.)
But the Times’ investigation is careful to distinguish between that instance of negligence and the persistent and routine violence against prisoners.
For this brutality, there is no accountability. No officers have been prosecuted for using this kind of force against prisoners, including those suffering from mental illness.
The Times reported, “None have been brought up on formal administrative charges in connection to the cases so far either.”
Officials in the jail will claim that they are overwhelmed by violent mentally ill inmates, who require force to be restrained because they fight back against guards. At the same time, there seems to be a lack of resources in the jail for treating the mentally ill and as a result the solution has become violence. The city has done nothing to discourage guards from making this the solution to the problem.
Furthermore, what is most striking is how easily the city of New York can keep this all under wraps through combination of unspoken commitments to secrecy, threats of retaliation for employees who speak out and refusals to let transparency laws pry loose records confirming rampant brutality.
As the Times put it, “Reports of such abuses have seldom reached the outside world, even as alarm has grown this year over conditions at the sprawling jail complex. A dearth of whistleblowers, coupled with the reluctance of the city’s Department of Correction to acknowledge the problem and the fact that guards are rarely punished, has kept the full extent of the violence hidden from public view.”
Not only do defenseless and extremely vulnerable people suffer severely in the prison but citizens are kept ignorant by their government because they know this is quite scandalous and corrupt behavior on the part of all officials involved.
Here’s Times interview with Andre Lane describing incident where he was brutally attacked: