A scathing report released Monday details the "culture of violence" imposed upon teenage inmates at New York City's Rikers Island, the second largest jail facility in the U.S. The report, a product of a two-and-a-half-year investigation by the Justice Department, describes the "rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force" by guards and the overreliance on solitary confinement as a means of punishment.
It also offered a grim reminder that Rikers Island has become a de facto psychiatric hospital from hell.
A view of a section of Rikers Island. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig).
New York is one of only two states that prosecute offenders age 16 to 18 as adults. Prisoners come and go constantly, but at Rikers there are nearly 500 inmates in that age group at any one time, over half of whom suffer from mental illness, the report states. On any given day, 15 to 20 percent of those 500 inmates are placed in solitary confinement. Most of the prisoners placed in solitary are mentally ill, although research has shown that solitary confinement only exacerbates mental illness. (In fact, Juan Mendez, the United Nations' special rapporteur on torture, has said the mentally ill should not be placed in such conditions.)
Although the Justice Department investigation focused only on the three Rikers jails that house younger male inmates, the reports states that "the systemic deficiencies identified in this report may exist in equal measure at the other jails on Rikers," where there's an average daily population of more than 10,000 inmates, a full 38 percent of whom suffer from mental illness.
As The New York Times reported earlier this summer, Rikers Island has more mentally ill inmates than all of the state's 24 psychiatric hospitals combined.
Critics have long charged that there's not enough treatment for mentally ill inmates at Rikers, and too much punishment. The conditions in the jail can cause prisoners with mental illnesses to lash out at correctional officers, which can result in additional criminal charges, which in turn leads to more jail time. In this way, the mentally ill on Rikers are ensnared in a cycle of incarceration.
"One mentally ill adolescent our consultant interviewed owed 374 days upon his admission to the MHAUII [Mental Health Assessment Unit for Infracted Inmates]," the report states, "and then accrued an additional 1,002 days for infractions committed while there."
A city official once described the units in the MHAUII, where the most violent mentally ill inmates are kept in isolation, as "parking lots for the mentally ill," according to the Associated Press. The Guardian described the housing area as a place "where inmates are placed in suicide-resistant, single-occupancy cells with cinderblock walls and food slots through which they can be handcuffed and served meals." Inmates there typically spend 23 hours a day on lockdown inside their cells, The New York World reported last year.
In March, Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed Joseph Ponte to be the city's new corrections commissioner. Ponte made a name for himself in Maine, where he scaled back on the use of solitary confinement in state prisons and implemented other dramatic reforms.
Monday's report noted that Ponte had not yet taken office when the misconduct documented by the investigation occurred. The report went on to list "10 categories of remedial measures necessary to address the Constitutional violations identified" in the investigation. One such measure is a ban on "the placement of adolescents with mental health disorders in solitary confinement."
Ponte told the Times Monday that his department has been "cooperating fully" with the Justice Department inquiry.
"I have made it clear that excessive use of force, unnecessary or unwarranted use of punitive segregation and corruption of any kind are absolutely unacceptable, and will not be tolerated under my watch," Ponte said.
Still, in the past two years, a handful of high-profile stories have illustrated how damaging, and at times fatal, the conditions at Rikers can be for the mentally ill. Those stories also show how inmates are often overseen by poorly trained or negligent guards.
Take the case of Jason Echevarria.
In 2012, Echevarria, a 25-year-old robbery suspect, had been housed in the MHAUII for two months. He decided to swallow a toxic ball of soap, in the hopes that becoming violently ill would result in him getting moved someplace new. Instead, a correction supervisor ignored Echevarria's cries of pain as he vomited and grew sicker and sicker. Echevarria later died. The city's medical examiner ruled his death a homicide due to a lack of immediate medical aid.
The supervisor, Captain Terrence Pendergrass, was arrested this spring on federal charges of violating Echevarria's civil rights. The Bronx District Attorney's office had declined to prosecute Pendergrass.
Or take the case of Jerome Murdough.
Murdough, 53, was a homeless former Marine with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. In February, he was arrested on a misdemeanor trespassing charge after cops allegedly found him sleeping in an enclosed stairwell on the roof of a Manhattan housing project.
Unable to make the $2,500 bail, Murdough was sent to Rikers. Eight days later, in the words of an unnamed city official quoted by the Associated Press, Murdough was "basically baked to death" in a cell where temperatures had risen to 101 degrees because of a malfunctioning heater. No one had checked on Murdough in four hours. As the AP reported, "Murdough's internal body temperature, taken nearly four hours after he was discovered unresponsive and slumped at the edge of the foot of his bed with 'a pool of vomit and blood on the floor,' was 103 degrees."
While prosecutors are investigating the death, Murdough's mother is suing the city for $25 million.
Or the case of Bradley Ballard.
Ballard, 39, was found naked on the floor of a Rikers mental observation unit in September. According to reports, he was covered in feces and a rubber band was tied around his penis. He was rushed to the hospital, but died hours later.
Ballard, who had both schizophrenia and diabetes, had been in solitary confinement for a week after making a lewd gesture at a female guard. During that time, guards repeatedly passed his cell but didn't enter. A mental health professional met with Ballard once. They spoke for 15 seconds.
In June, the medical examiner's office ruled Ballard's death a homicide, saying he had been denied access to medication. The primary cause of death was from a lack of insulin.
To date, no correction officers have been disciplined, fired or indicted over Ballard's death.
Or the case of Jose Bautista.
Warning: The following video contains images of violence that some readers may find disturbing.
In January, after being arrested for a family dispute, Bautista tore off his underwear and fashioned it into a noose that he hung from the highest bar in his cell, The New York Times reported. As seen in the video above, guards then rushed over to Bautista. City investigators later told the Times that the guards did not contact medical personnel, but instead began punching Bautista with such force that he suffered a perforated bowel. The guards didn't take Bautista to the hospital for hours. When he was finally taken to the ER, doctors had to perform emergency surgery to save his life.
No guards were punished for the incident. Bautista, who now has a foot-long scar down his stomach, has filed a lawsuit.
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