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Justice Department slams violent treatment of teens at Rikers Island

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Rikers Civil Rights photo

The Department of Justice’s report cited a “deep-seated culture of violence” and a “powerful code of silence” among Rikers Island staff.

Credit: Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

In a significant blow to the New York City Department of Correction, the U.S. Department of Justice today sharply criticized jail officials for using extreme violence and excessive solitary confinement against adolescent inmates at Rikers Island, the city’s massive East River complex.

Alone: Teens in Solitary Confinement

Capping a year of reporting about teens held in solitary confinement, The Center for Investigative Reporting is releasing our documentary "Alone," which can now be seen on our YouTube channel, The I Files. This follows stories we've done in print, for broadcast on the PBS NewsHour, as part of CIR's new "Reveal" radio show, and in an animation ("The Box") and graphic novel.

Alone: Teens in Solitary Confinement

Capping a year of reporting about teens held in solitary confinement, The Center for Investigative Reporting is releasing our documentary "Alone," which can now be seen on our YouTube channel, The I Files. This follows stories we've done in print, for broadcast on the PBS NewsHour, as part of CIR's new "Reveal" radio show, and in an animation ("The Box") and graphic novel.

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In a 79-page report sent to Mayor Bill de Blasio, investigators cited a “deep-seated culture of violence” and a “powerful code of silence” among jail staff. They concluded that there is “a pattern and practice of conduct at Rikers that violates the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates.”

The report says that correction officers routinely beat young inmates – often about the head – as retribution or punishment, and frequently attacked teenagers even when they were “completely subdued” or “never resisting in the first place.” The report found that between 2012-2013, jail staff used force against adolescents more than 1,000 times, resulting in 2,116 total injuries.

“Use of force is particularly common in areas without video surveillance cameras,” the report said.

Confirming the findings of a yearlong investigation by The Center for Investigative Reporting, the report also found that Rikers relies too heavily on punitive segregation, placing teens in solitary confinement “at an alarming rate” for “weeks and sometimes months at a time.” Consistent with CIR’s findings, the report also found that adolescents placed in solitary were often and routinely there for nonviolent conduct.

“The extremely high rates of violence and excessive use of solitary confinement for adolescent males uncovered by this investigation are inappropriate and unacceptable,” said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

In May 2013, CIR began investigating the solitary confinement of adolescent inmates around the country. Our investigation found that Rikers officials routinely held about a quarter of adolescent inmates in 23-hour-a-day isolation. Young inmates at Rikers call the 6-by-8-foot isolation cells “the box.”

CIR’s coverage resulted in text stories and a segment on CIR’s new radio show, “Reveal.” Coverage also included a video documentary, animation, photo essay, graphic novel and broadcast on the PBS NewsHour.

Today, the federal investigators’ report called Rikers’ use of solitary “a vicious cycle that serves to perpetuate rather than curb adolescent violence.”