By Richard Khavkine
April 26, 2019
Violence prevails in city jails, and the slow pace of investigations into incidents as well as the Department of Correction’s “deeply dysfunctional operating systems” is impeding reform efforts, according to the most recent report by an independent Federal monitor.
Despite a reduction in the number of inmates since the monitor, Steve J. Martin, and his team were appointed in 2015, the number of use-of-force incidents has increased about 50 percent, from 400 in January 2016 to 608 in December 2018, the report concluded. More ominously, the report said, the decrease in the jail population means the average rate of use-of-force incidents increased 79 percent since the first six-month monitoring period.
“Together, these aggregate trends show that the Department has lost ground in addressing its main objective—reducing unnecessary and excessive force and addressing those things in the environment...that contribute to situations where force is needed,” the report said.
Although DOC staff sometimes has no choice but to use force, the report said, it has failed to mitigate the factors that would lower the use-of-force rate “to more reasonable levels.”
It concluded that “several factors” contribute to the high rates of use-of-force, including that staff “have not yet fully embraced” de-escalation tactics.
The report said that correctional officers “often” create or increase the need to use force, contending that staff exacerbate an already adversarial, even combative culture by referring to inmates as “bodies” or “packages”; by employing sarcastic, antagonizing tones; and using non-verbal signals, such as the display of batons and pepper-spray canisters in a threatening manner. An overreliance on so-called “probe teams,” which are called to disturbances and violent incidents, also contributes to already-tense environments.
Continual reorganization of leadership and variable staff assignments dilute the ability of staff to convey “clear and consistent messaging about expected practices,” according to the report.
Over the course of a monitoring period spanning July through December 2018, “use of force rates reached their highest levels since the Consent Judgment went into effect,” it said.
About 11,000 active DOC staff, along with 1,900 civilian employees, oversee an average daily population of 8,136 inmates at the city’s 13 jail facilities, two prison wards and court-holding facilities.
Mr. Martin was installed as part of a consent decree to address what has for decades been one of the nation’s most stubbornly violent jail systems. This is his seventh report.
It noted that while DOC has taken “incremental steps” to facilitate reforms and diminish violence within the jail system, it has failed to instill three of the “most consequential provisions” of the decree: a use-of-force policy, “timely and quality investigations,” and “meaningful and adequate discipline.”
“The unremitting level use of force,” the report continued, prevents the reforms from taking root.
Use-of-Force incidents declined in three jails, all of them on Rikers Island: the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, the Rose M. Singer Center and the West Facility.
The DOC, for its part, said that while Mayor de Blasio’s effort to release low-risk, non-violent offenders from city jails have reduced the inmate population, the remaining jail population tends to be more violent and difficult to manage. According to the DOC, inmates with a violent felony charge increased from 16.6 percent of the total population in Fiscal Year 2014, to 22.7 percent in Fiscal Year 2018, with the number of gang members in custody accounting for 15.4 percent of the population in 2018, nearly double from four years ago.
“Reforming a century-old system takes time, but we’re already seeing significant declines in Uses of Force at some of our facilities,” DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann said in a statement. "This is thanks to ongoing new training and new leadership employing a more direct approach. We’re replicating best practices across all of our facilities and won’t be satisfied until we see success across the board.”
The president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, Elias Husamudeen, said that while he was pleased that the report noted progress, it nevertheless unfairly portrayed officers’ actions.
'Can't Ignore Causes'
“One of my major problems with the report is that you can’t discuss use of force without discussing the causes,” he said, adding that the majority of incidents grow out of inmate-on-inmate beefs, a consequence, he added, of the growing number of gang-affiliated members who are incarcerated.
“They take isolated incidents, string them together and act as if this is the norm,” he said of the report’s authors.
He also questioned how well the monitor and members of his team can appreciably understand the challenges, and the threats, inherent in a Correction Officer’s job.
“We have to be second-guessed on our actions by someone who has never worked in our shoes,” he said. “They have no idea of what we’re experiencing or feeling or seeing at the time of that incident.”
Mr. Martin, though, has about 45 years of experience in corrections and worked as a uniformed officer and was formerly General Counsel to the Texas prison system.
Mary Lynne Werlwas, the director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at The Legal Aid Society, said the report was further evidence that city jails foster a culture of violence, most of it perpetrated by staff.
“The Seventh Report from the Nunez monitor should alarm us all,” she said in a statement. “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.”
She said “sham facility investigations of use of force” were the standard.
“Staff and supervisors are rarely disciplined even for gross abuse and profound correctional failures,” she continued. “The hard work of the many officers and civilians who seek to make the jails safer is undermined by the normalization of dysfunction and abuse.”
The report noted that although the DOC has trained and retrained staff since the decree went into effect, correctional staff are resistant to changes in the culture. While DOC leadership “has embraced the reform effort,” rank-and-file officers have not been persuaded of the efficacy of the effort, the report said.
'Needless Pain Infliction'
As a consequence, use of force has increased, reaching its highest level last December. The report also said that “needless and gratuitous infliction of pain,” some of which does result in “visible or identifiable injury,” is still a hallmark of correction practice. “Such action also contribute significantly to a destructive culture” and remains “largely unchecked,” the report said.
And while misconduct charges against staff are being filed more regularly, the report said, the DOC’s assessments of misconduct and resulting discipline “is woefully inadequate.”
It said the DOC’s implementation of its Investigation Division’s preliminary reviews of use of force incidents has begun “to set a new tone about what is permissible.” It noted that nearly every incident is now captured on video and that reports are produced in a timely manner. Resulting data facilitates solutions and prevention “of the interrelated problems of violence and excessive and unnecessary uses of force,” the report noted.
“While these achievements remain fragmented” and have not yet brought about changes required by the consent decree, “they are important precursors to systemic reform,” the report said.
Earlier this year, a report by the city’s Board of Correction, which is charged with establishing conditions of confinement, found that DOC staff had “consistently” underreported serious injuries by as much as 80 percent when compared to data from the city’s correctional health-care system.