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Why violence toward inmates at NYC’s Rikers Island jail grew

The current crisis at the New York City jail on Rikers Island stems in part from aggressive efforts to end the chaos and bloodshed that plagued the city’s jails in the 1980s and 1990s. At the time, the average daily population was around 20,000, almost twice the current level.

REUTERS/FILE 2012

The current crisis at the New York City jail on Rikers Island stems in part from aggressive efforts to end the chaos and bloodshed that plagued the city’s jails in the 1980s and 1990s. At the time, the average daily population was around 20,000, almost twice the current level.

NEW YORK — The portrait emerging last week from the report on Rikers Island by the US attorney’s office in Manhattan is of a place with almost medieval levels of violence, meted out with startling ferocity by guards and their superiors.

The 2½-year investigation, which focused on the abuse of teenage inmates by correction staff, was exhaustive in cataloging the brutality.

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But a critical question that went unaddressed is how conditions were allowed to get to this point.

Rikers has been a place of violent excess for decades. And the growing ranks of inmates with mental illnesses, reaching nearly 40 percent of the jail population today, have added to the challenges for correction officials.

But conditions worsened substantially under the administration of mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, which reduced jail staff and failed to curb escalating violence by guards, say former correction officials, inmates’ advocates, and others familiar with the jail.

“There was very little interest in expending political capital and financial capital on the jails,” said Martin F. Horn, who was correction commissioner during Bloomberg’s first two terms.

As mayor, Bloomberg earned a reputation for being a consummate manager who leveraged his private sector experience to tackle municipal problems. But he never made Rikers a high priority, though conditions were deteriorating drastically, say people familiar with the jail’s problems.

In Bloomberg’s last term, the use of force by officers on inmates jumped by 90 percent, according to Correction Department data. Inmates’ advocates and public officials charged with overseeing the jails said they pleaded with the administration to address the issue.

“We met with the Department of Correction and the Bloomberg administration about the prevalence of violence directed by correctional staff towards prisoners, and they didn’t respond,” said Dr. Robert Cohen, a member of the New York City Board of Correction, a watchdog agency.

Early on, the Bloomberg administration cut more than 3,000 correctional positions. While some of the cuts were attributable to the declining inmate population and the closing of facilities, Horn said the reductions eventually went too far. When even more were proposed in 2008, he sent a letter to the city’s budget office, warning that further reductions would be “impossible without compromising the safety of everybody in the jail.”

For the remaining officers, mandatory overtime became the norm. Exhausted guards were increasingly prone to lashing out at inmates, said officers and oversight officials.

More recently, in Bloomberg’s third term, the Correction Department greatly reduced the number of officers responsible for escorting mentally ill inmates to therapy, meaning that many were locked in solitary confinement 23 hours a day and rarely got out for services.

Resentment and anger among inmates built up, said a senior Health Department official, leading to more attacks on guards by inmates.

A mental health task force, created by the Bloomberg administration in 2011, produced few results and lacked participation by key city officials, including Raymond W. Kelly, who was the police commissioner.

Stu Loeser, a former press secretary who is again a spokesman for Bloomberg, challenged claims that as mayor Bloomberg was indifferent to conditions at Rikers. Loeser pointed out that at City Hall the mayor sat a few feet from Linda I. Gibbs, the deputy mayor who oversaw the Correction Department, and conferred with her “throughout the day, almost every day,”

The current crisis at Rikers stems in part from aggressive efforts to end the chaos and bloodshed that plagued its jails in the 1980s and 1990s. At the time, the average daily population was around 20,000, almost twice its current level. Gangs like the Netas and the Latin Kings battled one another, as well as the guards. The chief problem then was inmate violence. Slashings and stabbings were routine. A thriving trade in drugs and weapons went virtually unchecked by a demoralized staff.

Today, violence is once again surging, but now it is the guards who are perceived to be at the heart of the problem.

Bernard B. Kerik — he helped oversee Rikers from 1995 to 2000, first as the top deputy at the Correction Department and then as commissioner — is credited with bringing inmate violence under control. A beefed-up SWAT team was equipped with clubs, pepper spray, and electrified stun shields. A data system similar to the Police Department’s Compstat was created to identify the jail’s trouble spots.

In 1999, there were fewer than 100 stabbings by inmates, compared with 1,100 five years earlier.

But even as conditions improved, advocates warned that allowing guards to rely so heavily on force could get out of hand.

“Whenever you impose a system of restraint on this scale, it can easily be abused,” Jonathan S. Chasan, a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society, told The New York Times in 1999.

The frequency of officers’ using force on inmates remained steady during Kerik’s tenure under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and declined during Bloomberg’s first term, reaching its lowest point in 2004, according to department data. But then it spiked.

In 2004, the department documented 961 altercations with inmates involving force. In 2013, with the ranks of inmates with mental illnesses on the upswing, there were 3,285. In the first six months of 2014, use of force was up by a third.

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