The City: ‘Unremitting’ Violence Against Inmates in City Jails Hits Three-year High

The Manhattan Detention Complex, also known as “The Tombs.”  Photo: Rachel Holliday Smith/THE CITY

The Manhattan Detention Complex, also known as “The Tombs.” Photo: Rachel Holliday Smith/THE CITY

By Reuven Blau
April 18, 2019

The city Correction Department’s “unremitting” use of force against inmates hit a three-year high — hampering the push to break a culture of violence, a federal monitor overseeing the jail system found.

The so-called “use of force” rate for the last six months of 2018 was 79% higher than when the federal monitor started work in 2016, according to a report released Thursday.

And the number of use of force cases keeps rising, despite fewer people behind bars.

“The unremitting level of use of force impedes the department’s ability to make progress in other areas,” the 256-page report said.

The federal monitor, Steve Martin, of Austin, Tex., was appointed in the summer of 2015 as part of a sweeping settlement tied to a class-action suit by a group of city inmates who alleged major abuses by officers.

Then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara later joined the so-called Nunez case, named after the lead defendant, citing a “deep-seated culture of violence” against teen inmates at Rikers Island.

The report released Thursday found “the department has taken several incremental steps to advance reform.”

But the Department of Correction has failed to accomplish most mandated reforms – including adequately disciplining officers charged with abuse, according to the report.

Conflicting Views on Progress Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann said the department is moving in the right direction, citing “new training and new leadership.”

“The safety and wellbeing of our officers and people in custody is our top priority,” she said in a statement to THE CITY. “Reforming a century-old system takes time, but we’re already seeing significant declines in Uses of Force at some of our facilities…. We’re replicating best practices across all of our facilities and won’t be satisfied until we see success across the board.”

But Mary Lynne Werlwas, a Legal Aid Society lawyer who represented the plaintiffs in the class action, said the report “should alarm us all.”

“Staff brutality in the New York City Department of Correction is more rampant than ever, despite a historic drop in the number of people incarcerated,” Werlwas said in a statement.

The monitoring team highlighted a “culture of incompetence” that leads to “sham facility investigations,” she added.

As THE CITY reported earlier this week, a Department of Investigation probe found that the number of violent incidents counted by the Department of Correction is unreliable.

The federal monitoring team cautioned that reforming the department is a “complex, long-term process that requires varying measures of technical expertise, patience and perseverance.”

“The current [Department of Correction] leadership has embraced the reform effort and is moving the system in the right direction, albeit at a slower pace than we collectively desire,” the report stated

Still, violence by staff against inmates “is occurring too frequently and is often precipitated by staff’s behavior,” the review said.

The report comes as city government seeks to phase out Rikers and house inmates in smaller jails in every borough except Staten Island. It also comes as the average daily inmate population has dropped 9% in recent years, from 9,790 in fiscal year 2016 to 8,896 in fiscal year 2018, according to the Mayor’s Management Report.

Despite the overall increase in violence, some facilities at Rikers saw a decline in incidents. The use of force rate reportedly went down by 34% at the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, 15% in the Rose M. Singer Center, and 50% in West Facility.