SDNY Rikers Report

August 4, 2014


The Honorable Bill de Blasio City Hall

260 Broadway

New York, NY 10007


Commissioner Joseph Ponte

New York City Department of Correction 75-20 Astoria Blvd.

East Elmhurst, NY 11370


Zachary Carter

Corporation Counsel of the City of New York 100 Church Street

New York, NY 10007


RE:      CRIPA Investigation of the New York City Department of Correction Jails on Rikers Island


Dear Mayor de Blasio, Commissioner Ponte, and Mr. Carter:


We write to report the findings of the investigation of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York into the treatment of adolescent male inmates, between the ages of 16 and 18, at New York City Department of Correction (“DOC” or the “Department”) jails on Rikers Island (“Rikers”).[1] By letter dated January 12, 2012, we notified the City of our intent to conduct an investigation pursuant to the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (“CRIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 1997, and Section 14141 of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, 42 U.S.C. § 14141 (“Section 14141”).  CRIPA and Section 14141 give the United States Department of Justice the authority to seek a remedy for a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the constitutional rights of inmates in detention and correctional facilities. Our investigation has centered exclusively on whether DOC adequately protects adolescents from harm.  More specifically, we have focused on whether adolescents are subject to excessive and unnecessary use of force by DOC correction officers and their supervisors, whether DOC adequately protects adolescents from violence by other inmates, and whether DOC’s extensive reliance on punitive segregation subjects adolescents to an excessive risk of harm.

We primarily focused on practices and conduct during the period 2011 through the end of 2013. We reviewed hundreds of thousands of pages of records from both DOC and the Department of Health and Mental Health (“DOHMH”), which is responsible for providing medical services to inmates at Rikers.[2] These records included, among other things, use of force investigative files, inmate medical records, policies and procedures, training materials, disciplinary records, programmatic materials related specifically to adolescent inmates, and other data. We identified a sample of approximately 200 use of force incidents involving adolescent inmates, and specifically requested all records related to these incidents, including use of force reports, investigative reports and files, video surveillance, inmate medical records, and records relating to any disciplinary action taken against involved inmates or staff.[3] The Appendix to this letter includes summaries of several of these incidents, which are intended to illustrate some of the systemic problems we have identified through our investigation.


In addition, on January 8-11, 2013, and April 8-12, 2013, we conducted tours of those DOC facilities that house adolescent inmates together with a consultant who is an expert in corrections generally and use of force specifically. Together with our consultant, we interviewed staff from DOC and DOHMH on issues related to our investigation, including use of force policies and practices, inmate supervision, staffing, the use of punitive segregation, medical treatment of injuries, security, investigations, training, programs specific to adolescent inmates, and facilities management. Our consultant also interviewed 46 adolescent inmates.[4] Additionally, we had discussions with former Commissioner Schriro and her senior staff in January 2013 and December 2013.


We also conducted additional witness interviews, including interviews with staff from the Board of Correction, an independent board established by the City Charter responsible for ensuring DOC’s compliance with minimum correctional standards. Finally, we reviewed materials provided to us by third parties, including the Board of Correction and the Legal Aid Society.


We thank DOC staff for their cooperation and professionalism throughout the course of this investigation. The City has provided us with access to personnel and a large volume of records, and we have every reason to believe that the City will be receptive to our recommendations. Consistent with the statutory requirements of CRIPA, we now write to advise you of the findings of our investigation and the minimum remedial steps necessary to address the serious deficiencies we have identified. 42 U.S.C. § 1997b.


We conclude that there is a pattern and practice of conduct at Rikers that violates the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates. In particular, we find that adolescent inmates at Rikers are not adequately protected from harm, including serious physical harm from the rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force by DOC staff. In addition, adolescent inmates are not adequately protected from harm caused by violence inflicted by other inmates, including inmate-on-inmate fights. Indeed, we find that a deep-seated culture of violence is pervasive throughout the adolescent facilities at Rikers, and DOC staff routinely utilize force not as a last resort, but instead as a means to control the adolescent population and punish disorderly or disrespectful behavior. Moreover, DOC relies far too heavily on punitive segregation as a disciplinary measure, placing adolescent inmates—many of whom are mentally ill—in what amounts to solitary confinement at an alarming rate and for excessive periods of time.


As discussed more fully below, these conditions have resulted in serious harm to adolescent inmates at Rikers. As a result of staff use of excessive force and inmate violence, adolescents have sustained a striking number of serious injuries, including broken jaws, broken orbital bones, broken noses, long bone fractures, and lacerations requiring sutures.


Our focus on the adolescent population should not be interpreted as an exoneration of DOC practices in the jails housing adult inmates. Indeed, while we did not specifically investigate the use of force against the adult inmate population, our investigation suggests that the systemic deficiencies identified in this report may exist in equal measure at the other jails on Rikers.[5]


We recognize that Commissioner Ponte recently assumed the position and was not present when the misconduct detailed in this letter occurred. We look forward to engaging in good faith discussions with the Commissioner and all interested parties to address the issues we have identified and implement appropriate remedial measures.



 We find that the New York City Department of Correction systematically has failed to protect adolescent inmates from harm in violation of the Eighth Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.  This harm is the result of the repeated use of excessive and unnecessary force by correction officers against adolescent inmates, as well as high levels of inmate-on-inmate violence.


We have made the following specific factual determinations:

  • force is used against adolescents at an alarming rate and violent inmate-on-inmate fights and assaults are commonplace, resulting in a striking number of serious injuries;
  • correction officers resort to “headshots,” or blows to an inmate’s head or facial area, too frequently;
  • force is used as punishment or retribution;
  • force is used in response to inmates’ verbal altercations with officers;
  • use of force by specialized response teams within the jails is particularly brutal;
  • correction officers attempt to justify use of force by yelling “stop resisting” even when the adolescent has been completely subdued or was never resisting in the first place; and
  • use of force is particularly common in areas without video surveillance cameras.


Furthermore, we identified the following systemic deficiencies that contribute to, exacerbate, and indeed are largely responsible for the excessive and unnecessary use of force by DOC staff. Many of these systemic deficiencies also lead to the high levels of inmate violence. These deficiencies include:


  • inadequate reporting by staff of the use of force, including false reporting;
  • inadequate investigations into the use of force;
  • inadequate staff discipline for inappropriate use of force;
  • an inadequate classification system for adolescent inmates;
  • an inadequate inmate grievance system;
  • inadequate supervision of inmates by staff;
  • inadequate training both on use of force and on managing adolescents; and
  • general failures by management to adequately address the extraordinarily high levels of violence perpetrated against and among the adolescent population.


Finally, DOC’s use of prolonged punitive segregation for adolescent inmates is excessive and inappropriate.



A. Department of Correction Jails on Rikers Island

The Department oversees one of the largest municipal jail complexes in the country. DOC handles over 100,000 admissions per year and manages an average daily population of approximately 14,000 inmates,[6] the vast majority of whom are held in ten facilities located on over 400 acres on Rikers Island in the East River.[7] The population consists primarily of pre-trial detainees, although there is one facility on Rikers that houses sentenced inmates serving terms of one year or less. Medical services are the responsibility of DOHMH, which contracts with Corizon Correctional Health. Corizon staffs the medical clinics at each facility on Rikers, which provide day-to-day, out-patient medical care to inmates.

B. Adolescent Housing Units on Rikers Island

New York is one of only two states that automatically charges all individuals aged 16 and older as adults.[8] Adolescent males are currently housed in three different jails on Rikers. Most adolescents are placed at the Robert N. Davoren Center (“RNDC”). Recently, DOC assigned 18- year olds to separate RNDC housing units so they are no longer co-mingled with the 16- and 17- year olds. Sentenced adolescent males are placed at the Eric M. Taylor Center (“EMTC”), which houses inmates sentenced to serve one year or less. Finally, up to 50 adolescents may be housed in the Central Punitive Segregation Unit (“CPSU”) at the Otis Bantum Correctional Center (“OBCC”), which, as its name suggests, is a central location for adult and adolescent inmates who are placed in punitive segregation after being found guilty of an infraction or who are in pre-hearing detention status. Until recently, up to 50 adolescents were also housed in the Mental Health Assessment Unit for Infracted Inmates (“MHAUII”), a punitive segregation unit at the George R. Vierno Center (“GRVC”) used to house infracted mentally ill inmates. The Department closed MHAUII in late 2013.


Like many of the facilities on Rikers, the facilities that house adolescents are old and in poor condition. RNDC was opened in 1972, EMTC in 1964, and OBCC in 1985. Currently, all adolescents at RNDC are housed in cells, with the exception of newly admitted adolescents and those in mental observation housing units, who are housed in dormitories. Adolescents in EMTC are housed in dormitories. Adolescents in the CPSU are housed in a block of punitive segregation cells set aside for adolescents. Over the course of our investigation, DOC increased the number of staff assigned to RNDC, including an increase from three to five officers in housing units during non-school hours, and added several supervisors, including a Deputy Warden responsible for adolescents.


C. Description of Adolescent Population 

The average daily adolescent population at Rikers has recently deceased. The average daily adolescent population was 489 in FY 2014, 682 in FY 2013, and 791 in FY 2012 [9]


The adolescent population at Rikers is a difficult one. As compared with the adult inmate population, far more adolescents suffer from mental illness and more adolescents are awaiting trial on felony charges. In FY 2013, approximately 51% of adolescent inmates at Rikers were diagnosed with some form of mental illness. Inmates with mental illness are less likely to make bail as they tend to have fewer financial resources and family members are less willing to post their bail, so their average length of stay tends to be longer. In FY 2013, the average length of stay on Rikers for adolescents was 74.6 days. Also in FY 2013, nearly two-thirds of all adolescents admitted to Rikers were charged with felony crimes—almost twice the level as for adults admitted to Rikers. The recidivism rate is also high. In FY 2013, the average number of prior admissions into DOC custody for adolescents was 1.02. In addition, many adolescent inmates are associated with street gangs and gang activity.



CRIPA prohibits states or their political subdivisions from engaging in a pattern or practice of conduct that deprives persons residing in or confined to an institution of their constitutional rights. See 42 U.S.C. § 1997a(a). Section 14141 similarly prohibits officials or employees of any governmental agency with responsibility for the incarceration of juveniles from engaging in a pattern or practice of conduct that deprives persons of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States. See 42 U.S.C. § 14141.


Prison administrators are constitutionally required “to take reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of the inmates.” Hudson v. Palmer, 468 U.S. 517, 526-27 (1984); Hayes v. NYC Dep’t of Corr., 84 F.3d 614, 620 (2d Cir. 1996). When a jurisdiction takes a person into custody and holds him against his will, the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution “imposes upon it a corresponding duty to assume some responsibility for his safety and general well-being.” County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 851 (1998) (quoting DeShaney v.

Winnebago County Dept. of Social Servs., 489 U.S. 189, 199-200 (1989)); see also Randle v. Alexander, 960 F. Supp. 2d 457, 471 (S.D.N.Y. 2013).


While the constitutional rights of convicted prisoners and pre-trial inmates are guaranteed under different constitutional norms, courts have consistently held that pre-trial detainees “retain at least those constitutional rights . . . enjoyed by convicted prisoners [under the Eighth Amendment].” Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 545 (1979); see also Cuoco v. Moritsugu, 222 F.3d 99, 106 (2d Cir. 2000) (noting that courts apply the “Eighth Amendment deliberate indifference test to pre-trial detainees bringing actions under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment”); Weyant v. Okst, 101 F.3d 845, 856 (2d Cir. 1996).


The Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid excessive physical force against inmates and pre-trial detainees. See Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 832 (1994); see also United States v. Walsh, 194 F.3d 37, 48 (2d Cir. 1999). In determining whether excessive force was used, courts examine a variety of factors, including the extent of the injury suffered by the inmate, the need for the application of force, the relationship between the need for force and the amount of force used, the threat, if any, reasonably perceived by the responsible correction officers, and any efforts made to temper the severity of a forceful response. See Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 7 (1992).


An Eighth Amendment claim for failure to protect inmates from harm is comprised of both a subjective and an objective component. See Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834. The subjective component requires a showing that a prison official acted with “‘deliberate indifference’ to inmate health or safety.” Id. This requirement is satisfied when the official “knows of and disregards an excessive risk to inmate health or safety.” Id. at 837. “[T]he official must both be aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and he must also draw the inference.” Id. The objective component turns on whether the inmate “is incarcerated under conditions posing a substantial risk of serious harm.” Id. at 834. “Importantly, the objective prong can be satisfied even when no serious physical injury results.” Randle, 960 F. Supp. 2d at 473.



A. Extraordinary Frequency of Violence


Adolescent inmates are subject to pervasive violence at Rikers. DOC staff routinely use force unnecessarily as a means to control the adolescent population and punish disobedient or disrespectful inmates in clear violation of DOC policy. Even when some level of force is necessary, the force used is often disproportionate to the risk posed by the inmate, frequently resulting in serious injuries to inmates and staff. In addition, inmate-on-inmate fights and assaults are commonplace, in part because youth are inadequately supervised by inexperienced and inadequately trained correction officers.


Adolescents are at constant risk of physical harm while incarcerated. The number of injuries sustained by adolescents is staggering. For instance, during the period April 2012 through April 2013, adolescents sustained a total of 754 visible injuries, according to DOHMH data.


Inmates see others being beaten and attacked and are afraid that they will face the same fate. During interviews with our consultant, many inmates expressed fear for their personal safety. The RNDC Ombudsman advised us that inmates have shared safety concerns with him as well. Some inmates have even expressed a preference to be placed in punitive segregation instead of the general RNDC population due to the high level of violence at the facility.


On a daily basis, emergency alarms sound repeatedly in adolescent housing areas signaling some altercation or disturbance. As a result, the facility frequently is placed in locked down status and inmates are confined to their cells. In FY 2013 alone, there were 1,118 responses to emergency alarms in the RNDC and EMTC adolescent housing areas, or on average more than three alarms each day.


Simply put, Rikers is a dangerous place for adolescents and a pervasive climate of fear exists. For years, DOC officials have been well aware of the frequency and severity of staff use of force against adolescents, the high incidence of inmate-on-inmate fights, and the number of serious injuries sustained by adolescents, but have failed to take reasonable steps to ensure adolescents’ safety. See Farmer, 511 U.S. at 847 (“a prison official may be held liable under the Eighth Amendment . . . only if he knows that inmates face a substantial risk of serious harm and disregards that risk by failing to take reasonable measures to abate it”); Ayers v. Coughlin, 780 F.2d 205, 209 (2d Cir. 1986) (prison officials have a duty to “employ reasonable measures to protect an inmate from violence by other prison residents”); Anderson v. Branen, 17 F.3d 552, 557 (2d Cir. 1994) (noting that law enforcement officers bear an affirmative duty to intercede when they witness or have reason to know excessive force is being used or any constitutional violation is being committed).


1. Frequency of Staff Use of Force 

Staff use force against adolescent inmates with alarming frequency. In FY 2013, there were 565 reported staff use of force incidents involving adolescents in RNDC and EMTC (resulting in 1,057 injuries).[10] This represented a slight increase from FY 2012, when there were 517 reported staff use of force incidents involving adolescents at these same facilities (resulting in 1,059 injuries). These are extraordinary figures considering that the average daily adolescent population at Rikers was only 682 in FY 2013, and 791 in FY 2012. Indeed, 308 (or 43.7%) of the 705 adolescent males in custody as of October 30, 2012, had been subjected to the use of force by staff on at least one occasion. Indeed, while adolescents made up only about 6% of the average daily population at Rikers, they were involved in a disproportionate 21% of all incidents involving use of force and/or serious injuries. Our consultant, who has observed and worked with hundreds of correctional facilities, has never seen a higher use of force rate.


Moreover, the use of force numbers are undoubtedly even higher than DOC’s data suggest because many incidents go unreported. As discussed infra, correction officers often do not accurately report incidents, and warn inmates to “hold it down” or otherwise pressure them not to report use of force incidents.


2. Frequency of Inmate-on-Inmate Violence 

The number of reported inmate-on-inmate fights and assaults is also striking, and further demonstrates that DOC is not fulfilling its responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of adolescent inmates, resulting in grave harm to adolescents.


In FY 2013, there were 845 reported inmate-on-inmate fights involving adolescents at RNDC and EMTC. This marked an increase from the 795 reported fights in FY 2012.[11] In the first half of FY 2014, a total of 775 infractions were issued to adolescents for fighting. Many fights involve the use of weapons, which are widespread at Rikers. During FY 2013, 345 weapons were discovered in the RNDC and EMTC adolescent housing areas, consisting mostly of shanks and shivs. Our consultant has never observed a system with such frequent inmate-on- inmate violence.


Again, there is good reason to suspect that inmate-on-inmate fights are even more prevalent than reflected in DOC’s data. According to the results of an internal audit completed last year, RNDC failed to report 375 fights during calendar year 2011 alone, due in part to the lack of a codified definition of “inmate fight,” and inconsistencies in how staff recorded and reported inmate altercations.[12] Based on our discussions with former and current Department staff, similar reporting errors likely persisted well after 2011.


The limited programming and structured activities available at RNDC in part contribute to the extraordinary level of inmate-on-inmate violence. We recognize that DOC has taken steps to enhance its adolescent programming, including through the introduction of the Adolescent Behavioral Learning Experience (“ABLE”), a privately-funded, wrap-around school program administered by outside providers. However, adolescents remain too idle, particularly during evenings and weekends, which increases the likelihood of altercations. Moreover, the large number of adolescents in punitive segregation, discussed infra, are not permitted to participate in the limited programming that is available.


3. High Number of Serious Injuries 

Staff uses of force and inmate-on-inmate fights and assaults have resulted in an alarming number of serious injuries to adolescents, including broken jaws, broken orbital bones, broken noses, long bone fractures, and lacerations requiring stitches. DOC too often fails to ensure that these injured inmates receive prompt medical care.


The prevalence of head injuries is particularly striking. Adolescents suffer a disproportionate number of the reported inmate head injuries on Rikers. From June 2012 through early July 2013, adolescents sustained a total of 239 head injuries, and were twice as likely to sustain such injuries as was the adult population.


Bone fractures are common as well. Adolescents housed in RNDC and EMTC sustained a total of 96 suspected fractures from September 2011 through August 2012, according to DOHMH data.[13] In addition, during FY 2013, adolescents were taken to Urgicare for emergency medical services 459 times.


The frequency with which staff use of force results in inmate injuries, and the nature and severity of those injuries, strongly suggest that correction officers are routinely employing excessive levels of force against adolescent inmates. During recent years, DOHMH has tracked the number of inmate injuries inflicted by DOC staff, and the results are disturbing.  For instance, during the first half of 2012, 55% of the inmates brought to the RNDC clinic after a use of force incident had a verifiable injury. This represented a higher rate than any other Rikers housing facility, taking into account inmate population. Even more concerning, 48% of those injuries were to the inmate’s head or face, including fractures, contusions, and lacerations.[14]


B. Inappropriate Use of Force by Staff 

DOC has engaged in a systemic and pervasive pattern and practice of utilizing unnecessary and excessive force against adolescent inmates in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution. See Farmer, 511 U.S. at 832; Walsh, 194 F.3d at 47.


Generally accepted correctional practices require that the appropriate use of force in a given circumstance should include a continuum of interventions, and that the amount of force used should not be disproportionate to the threat posed by an inmate. Absent exigent circumstances, lesser modes of intervention, such as the issuance of infractions or passive escorts, ought to be utilized or considered before more serious and forceful interventions. When force is necessary, correction officers generally should first apply techniques designed to immobilize, control, and restrain an aggressive inmate. DOC routinely violates these well- accepted contemporary correctional practices, as well as the Department’s own use of force policies.[15]


Rikers staff strike adolescents in the head and face at an alarming rate, and too often employ force for the purpose of inflicting injuries and pain. Inmates are beaten as a form of punishment, sometimes in apparent retribution for some perceived disrespectful conduct.

Correction officers improperly use injurious force in response to refusals to follow orders, verbal taunts, or insults, even when the inmate presents no threat to the safety or security of staff or other inmates. Adolescents have alleged that officers deliberately take them to off-camera locations in order to beat them and inflict serious injuries that will not be captured on video.

Finally, staff frequently continue to strike inmates after they are clearly under control and effectively restrained, often attempting to justify their actions later by reporting that the inmate continued to resist. The Department’s failure to curb these patterns and practices that place adolescents at ongoing risk of serious harm constitutes deliberate indifference to the adolescents’ safety while in DOC custody and violates their constitutional rights. See Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834; see also Nunez v. Goord, 172 F. Supp. 2d 417, 432 (S.D.N.Y. 2001) (“[P]rison officials’ malicious and sadistic use of force is a per se violation of the Eighth Amendment, because the conduct, regardless of injury, ‘always’ violates contemporary standards of decency.”) (citing Hudson, 503 U.S. at 9)).


As discussed later in this report, DOC fails to conduct rigorous and timely investigations of use of force incidents and does not consistently hold staff accountable for their conduct. As a result, a culture of excessive force persists, where correction officers physically abuse adolescent inmates with the expectation that they will face little or no consequences for their unlawful conduct.

 1. Frequency of Headshots

Headshots refer to blows to an inmate’s head or facial area, typically through a punch, strike or a kick. Headshots are considered an excessive and unnecessary use of force, except in the rare circumstances where an officer or some other individual is at imminent risk of serious bodily injury and no more reasonable method of control may be used to avoid such injury. Headshots can cause great bodily harm, usually serve no legitimate correctional purpose, are often retaliatory, and typically serve only to escalate incidents.


Headshots are commonplace at Rikers. We have identified numerous incidents where correction officers struck adolescents repeatedly in the head or face, often causing significant injuries. Based on our review of use of force incidents, inmate interviews, and other information, it is clear that headshots are not limited to situations where staff or others face an imminent risk of serious bodily injury. As discussed further below, staff too often strike inmates in the head or face to punish them for their prior conduct. Staff frequently deliver closed fist punches to an adolescent’s facial area as an initial response to a volatile situation, without first seeking to control or neutralize the inmate through less aggressive techniques. Our consultant reported that headshots are far more common at Rikers than at any other correctional institution he has observed.


In many instances, correction officers readily admit hitting inmates but claim they acted in self-defense after being punched first by the inmate. As a threshold matter, even when an inmate strikes an officer, an immediate retaliatory strike to the head or face is inappropriate. Moreover, there is often reason to question the credibility of the officer’s account. These incidents also disproportionately occur in locations without video surveillance, making it difficult to determine what transpired.


Based on a review of Department 24-hour reports[16] from October 2012 through early April 2014, we identified 64 incidents involving blows to an adolescent inmate’s head or face.[17] This is undoubtedly an underestimate of the number of headshots during this period, because 24- hour reports contain only initial incident summaries prepared by staff themselves. Indeed, our review of incidents and witness interviews suggest that headshots were utilized far more frequently during this period. However, the fact that these summaries so often openly refer to headshots is disturbing. The following entries from 24-hour reports are representative of instances when staff plainly admit using headshots but claim that they were provoked by inmate conduct:


  • On August 16, 2013, an inmate reportedly refused to comply with an order directing him to sweep up some debris, and then allegedly spit in the face of an officer and “took a fighting stance.” The officer “punched the inmate in the facial area.” The inmate sustained an injury to his “right periorbital” that required sutures. There was no video surveillance of the incident.
  • On August 26, 2013, an inmate reportedly spat at an officer while being transported in a DOC vehicle. “The officer defended himself with a punch to the inmate’s facial area.” There was no video surveillance.
  • On October 29, 2013, an inmate reportedly spat in the face of an officer. The officer “punched the inmate in the face and the inmate sat on the bench terminating the incident.”
  • On February 27, 2014, an inmate reportedly sat down and refused to walk while being escorted from intake to the RNDC housing area. An officer “approached the inmate and began hitting him in the facial area.” The inmate sustained a superficial scalp abrasion.


In addition to the significant number of incidents where officers plainly admit delivering headshots, as noted in further detail below, there are other occasions where staff report using only “upper body control holds” to restrain inmates, but the evidence—such as statements in the inmates’ medical records describing facial swelling, bruising, or lacerations—strongly suggests that the officers in fact used headshots and submitted false reports. The following example is illustrative:

  • In January 2013, an inmate reported that he was beaten by a correction officer in the RNDC school area where there is no video surveillance. Despite the fact that the inmate sustained multiple bruises to his neck and forehead, the correction officer denied striking the inmate.  The officer initially reported that he had used an “upper body control hold” to subdue the inmate. However, the Captain assigned to investigate the incident found that the injuries sustained by the inmate were not consistent with staff use of force reports and concluded that the correction officer had “falsified his use of force report in an attempt to downplay” the incident. (This incident, referred to as involving Inmate K, is described in further detail in the Appendix.)


Furthermore, headshots are a long-standing problem at Rikers. In 2004, Steve Martin, the consultant retained in a then-pending class action lawsuit against DOC, issued a scathing report decrying the frequency with which DOC staff punched inmates in the face. See Report of Steve J. Martin submitted in Ingles v. Toro, 01 Civ. 8279 (DC). Mr. Martin wrote that “there is utterly no question that the Department, by tolerating the routine use of blunt force headstrikes by staff, experiences a significantly greater number of injuries to inmates than the other metropolitan jail systems with which I am familiar.” It is troubling that, ten years later, this practice continues.


2. Use of Force as Punishment or Retribution 

We found that Rikers staff utilize physical force to punish adolescent inmates for real or perceived misconduct and as a form of retribution, in violation of the Department’s policy.[18] Many of these incidents involve adolescents with significant mental health impairments who have limited impulse control, making DOC’s punitive conduct even more troubling. Force used for the sole purpose of punishment or retribution is always considered improper, and can result in the most serious injuries. For example:


  • In December 2012, after being forcibly extracted from their cells for failure to comply with search procedures, two inmates (mentally ill inmates placed in the punitive segregation unit MHAUII) were taken to the GRVC clinic and beaten in front of medical staff. Our consultant interviewed both inmates about this incident. The New York City Department of Investigation (“DOI”) conducted an investigation and concluded that staff had assaulted both inmates “to punish and/or retaliate against the inmates for throwing urine on them and for their overall refusal to comply with earlier search procedures.” Based on inmate statements and clinic staff accounts, a Captain and multiple officers took turns punching the inmates in the face and body while they were restrained. One clinician reported that she observed one inmate being punched in the head while handcuffed to a gurney for what she believed to be five minutes. Another clinician reported that she observed DOC staff striking the other inmate with closed fists while he screamed for them to stop hurting him. A physician reported that when he asked what was happening, correction officers falsely told him that the inmates were banging their heads against the wall. A Captain later approached a senior DOHMH official and stated, in substance, that it was good the clinical staff were present “so that they could witness and corroborate the inmates banging their own heads into the wall.” The correction officers’ reports did not refer to any use of force in the clinic, and each report concluded by stating: “The inmate was escorted to the clinic without further incident or force used.” The involved Captain did not submit any use of force report at all. One inmate sustained a contusion to his left shoulder and tenderness to his ribcage, and the other inmate reported suffering several contusions and soreness to his ribs and chest. One of the inmates told our consultant that he was still spitting up blood due to the incident when interviewed more than a month later.[19]


  • In June 2012, in an apparent act of retribution, two correction officers forcibly took an inmate to the ground and beat him. The officers punched the inmate multiple times and kicked him in the head, resulting in serious injuries including a two-centimeter laceration to his chin that required sutures, a lost tooth, and cracking and chipping to the inmate’s other teeth. According to the inmate, who was interviewed by our consultant, prior to the incident one of the officers had called him a “snitch” and was under the false impression that the inmate had previously reported that the officer had been involved in another use of force incident. (This incident, referred to as involving Inmate G, is described in further detail in the Appendix.)


  • In May 2012, an inmate was beaten near the RNDC school area where there is no video surveillance. A correction officer punched him multiple times in the face, and another officer allegedly kicked him while he was on the ground. According to the inmate, the officer had gotten angry at him earlier in the day when he did not comply with orders to stop doing pushups and report to bed. The officer had threatened to “slap the shit out of him if he kept playing,” according to another inmate. In his initial use of force report, the officer asserted that the inmate had instigated the fight by punching the officer in the face “without provocation,” and that he had responded in self-defense by punching the inmate in the upper body. Later, the officer submitted a written addendum to his initial report acknowledging that he had punched the inmate in the facial area, not just the upper body. The inmate sustained a nasal fracture and bruises to his face and head. (This incident, referred to as involving Inmate C, is described in further detail in the Appendix.)


  • In January 2012, an inmate splashed a correction officer with a liquid substance. While the inmate was flex-cuffed and being escorted away, the correction officer approached him and started punching him in his facial area, according to the investigating Captain’s report. The correction officer did not stop until a probe team officer pushed her away from the inmate. The officer then punched the wall in anger. Although the investigating Captain concluded that the force used was “not necessary, inappropriate and excessive,” a Tour Commander later reversed that position and concluded that the force used was necessary and within policy.


Inmates reported to our consultant that staff have taken inmates to isolated locations with no camera coverage to inflict beatings, and that multiple officers have teamed up to deliver these beatings. A senior DOHMH official told us that inmates have made similar statements to him and his staff.


Staff also regularly violate the Department’s policy prohibiting use of force against an inmate who has ceased to resist. Correction officers often continue to hit, slap, beat, or kick adolescents well after they have been restrained and no longer present any actual threat or safety risk. Numerous inmates provided our consultant with specific and credible accounts of incidents where this occurred. Some of the most serious injuries occur when adolescents have been already placed in flex cuffs or taken to the ground and are unable to defend themselves.[20]


  • In August 2013, four adolescent inmates were reportedly brutally beaten by multiple officers. Based on accounts provided by the inmates, several officers assaulted the inmates, punching and kicking them and striking them with radios, batons, and broomsticks. The beating continued for several minutes after the inmates already had been subdued and handcuffed.  The inmates were then taken to holding pens near the clinic intake where they were beaten again by several DOC Gang Intelligence Unit members, who repeatedly punched and kicked them while the inmates were handcuffed. Two of the inmates reported that they had lost consciousness or blacked out during the incident. The officers’ written statements assert that the inmates instigated the fight and they used force only to defend themselves. The Department’s investigation of the incident was ongoing at the time this letter was prepared. The inmates sustained multiple injuries, including a broken nose, a perforated eardrum, head trauma, chest contusions, and contusions and injuries to the head and facial area. (This incident, referred to as involving Inmates M, N, O, and P, is described in further detail in the Appendix.)


  • In January 2013, after reportedly being disruptive while waiting to enter the RNDC dining hall, an inmate, who was on suicide watch at the time, was taken down by a Captain and punched repeatedly on his head and upper torso while he lay face down on the ground covering his head with his hands. The inmate told investigators that the Captain had “punched [him] everywhere.” According to the Tour Commander’s report, the Captain’s use of force was “excessive and avoidable” because the inmate presented no threat while lying on the ground. The inmate sustained bruises to his left and right shoulders, left and right lower arms, chest area, neck, middle back, and a finger on his right hand, as well as an abrasion to his right elbow. (This incident, referred to as involving Inmate L, is described in further detail in the Appendix.)


Correction officers also punish inmates through the use of painful escort techniques. For instance, several inmates complained that staff apply flex cuffs tightly and exert intense pressure in order to inflict extreme pain. Given that inmates in flex cuffs are restrained and pose no safety threat, the officer’s sole purpose in these situations is to inflict needless pain.


As reflected in the below examples, adolescents have sustained serious injuries to their wrists and hands as a result of these abusive tactics:


  • An inmate told our consultant that in February 2013 a probe team Captain lifted his hands up while he was flex-cuffed, fracturing his wrist. According to the inmate’s statement to DOC investigators, the Captain told him and the other inmates being escorted that “he would make them suffer,” and “cry like babies.” Another inmate told investigators the Captain had directed the officers to “make them scream” while the inmates were escorted through the corridor. We reviewed video of the incident showing the inmate being escorted down the corridor while rear-cuffed. We also reviewed medical records confirming that the inmate broke his left wrist as a result of the incident and required surgery. The Department’s investigation of the incident was ongoing at the time this letter was prepared.


  • An inmate told our consultant that after he got into a fight with another inmate in January 2013, the probe team arrived, placed him in flex cuffs, and applied significant pressure. According to the inmate, after the Captain asked the officer why he was not crying, the officer applied additional pressure. The inmate stated that he lost feeling in his hand and was told to “hold it down” and not report the injury. When our consultant interviewed him in April 2013, the inmate still had no feeling in his left thumb. We reported his ongoing pain to the Department, and the inmate was scheduled for a neurology consult thereafter.


We also identified instances where staff reportedly challenged inmates to fights at locations with no video surveillance, such as stairwells or the school area. For example:


  • During an interview with our consultant, an inmate reported that he got into an altercation with a correction officer who threatened to confront him later at a location without cameras. According to the inmate, the officer subsequently attacked him in the school area, throwing numerous punches at his head.


3. Use of Force in Response to Verbal Altercations and Failure to Follow Instructions 

Staff too often resort to abusive physical force when confronted with verbal taunts and insults, noncompliant inmates, and complaints, even though no safety or security threat exists. Although the inmate’s conduct may constitute a rule violation and warrant some form of disciplinary action, it should not provoke an abusive physical response.


  • In January 2014, an inmate sustained significant facial injuries as a result of a use of force incident that occurred in an RNDC school classroom. When interviewed by Board of Correction staff, the inmate reported that he was repeatedly punched and kicked in the head and face by multiple officers. The inmate claimed that the altercation began after a civilian employee’s pen had been taken. The inmate was still spitting up blood and having difficulty talking when Board of Correction staff interviewed him hours after the incident.


  • In January 2013, an RNDC correction officer punched an inmate multiple times in the face and upper body area. According to the inmate, the officer was upset because the inmates had been playing with their food. (This incident, referred to as involving Inmate I, is described in further detail in the Appendix.)


  • In January 2013, a Captain injured a mentally ill inmate in MHAUII by forcefully closing the rear slide door of the cuff port of his cell on the inmate’s left arm. In his written statement, the Captain stated that the inmate “was holding the cuff” and did not comply with orders to remove his hand from the slot. However, the video of the incident shows the Captain forcefully closing the slot within just a few seconds of arriving at the inmate’s cell. (This incident, referred to as involving Inmate J, is described in further detail in the Appendix.)


  • In August 2012, an RNDC correction officer got into a verbal confrontation with an inmate after the inmate asked that his clothes be returned. The officer struck the inmate in his face. In her account of the incident, the officer claimed that she was trying to direct the inmate towards his bed, and “inadvertently” touched his facial area. Eyewitness reports and medical records, though, established that the officer had deliberately slapped the inmate and then provided false statements to investigators.


  • In August 2012, during a cell search in MHAUII, an inmate, who was handcuffed at the time, reportedly verbally abused a correction officer and threatened to spit at him. The correction officer claimed he heard the inmate collecting mucus in his mouth and responded by punching the inmate in the face.


  • In May 2012, an inmate sustained serious injuries, including a skull fracture, as a result of a use of force incident that occurred in the RNDC search area. The inmate claimed the beating took place after he had made a smart remark following a strip search. An officer who admitted punching the inmate “numerous times in his face and upper body areas” claimed that the inmate instigated the incident by disobeying his order to comply with the search process and punching the officer. (This incident, referred to as involving Inmate D, is described in further detail in the Appendix.)


Staff appear to be poorly versed in conflict resolution and de-escalation skills, which are particularly important when interacting with the volatile adolescent inmate population at Rikers. When an inmate talks back or makes a derogatory remark, staff frequently escalate the disagreement into a physical confrontation instead of exercising patience and seeking to de-escalate the situation. Staff fail to recognize the importance of using time and separation to avoid altercations.


During our tours of the facilities, we observed some staff members’ combative approach and tendency to aggressively push inmates for immediate compliance with directives. This serves only to further exacerbate the hostile atmosphere that permeates the adolescent housing areas.


4. Use of Force by Specialized Teams 

The probe and cell extraction teams too often deploy unnecessary and excessive use of force. These teams are the source of numerous inmate complaints.


The probe team is the group of correction officers and supervisors who respond to disturbances and violent incidents. Each facility has its own probe team. Team members vary, depending on who is on duty for a particular shift. Probe team members wear helmets, face shields, and protective equipment around their torso. Inmates commonly refer to them as “the Turtles.”


Upon arriving at the scene of an incident, probe team members too often quickly resort to the use of significant levels of force. As demonstrated repeatedly during inmate interviews, adolescents fear the probe teams based on their aggressive reputation and heavy-handed tactics. For instance, one mentally ill inmate told our consultant that a probe team member entered his cell and struck him on the back with a baton in March 2013. The Department found that the probe team member used the baton “in an unethical manner” based on its review of the handheld camera recording, which was not provided to us despite our requests. The RNDC Grievance Coordinator also advised our consultant that she has received numerous inmate complaints about the probe team.


Cell extraction teams are called upon to remove a resistant or assaultive inmate from his cell. Before resorting to force, staff generally ought to first try to persuade inmates to voluntarily leave their cells through counseling. Indeed, DOC policy requires that mental health staff be summoned to attempt to persuade an inmate to cooperate. However, these efforts rarely succeed, and extractions too frequently lead to physical altercations and unnecessary injuries.[21]


5. Falsely Claiming that Inmate Was Resisting to Justify Use of Force 

While utilizing force, staff often yell “stop resisting” even though the adolescent has been completely subdued or, in many instances, was never resisting in the first place. This appears intended to establish a record that the continued use of force is necessary to control the inmate. Officers who witness the incident also frequently report that they heard the inmate was resisting, even though that is false.


During our on-site interviews, multiple inmates, without prompting, referred to the practice. A senior DOHMH official also reported that correction officers direct inmates to stop resisting while administering beatings. In addition, we reviewed an anticipated use of force incident involving a cell search where the camcorder recording shows a Captain repeatedly yelling “stop resisting” from the outset, well before she even arrived at the entrance to the cell where she could see the inmate. At one point, the inmate responds “I’m not resisting.” We could not determine what was happening in the cell because the camcorder was pointed at an officer’s back and later at a polycarbonate shield.


This practice reflects a clear intent on the part of staff to cover up the use of unnecessary and excessive force.


6. High Levels of Use of Force in Areas Without Cameras 

The most egregious inmate beatings frequently occur in locations without video surveillance. To its credit, DOC has installed hundreds of surveillance cameras in RNDC in response to the unacceptable levels of violence in the facility. However, a number of areas with no video surveillance still remain. A disproportionate number of the most disturbing use of force incidents occur in these areas, including several incidents cited in this letter and discussed at greater length in the Appendix.  In particular, an astonishing number of incidents take place in the RNDC school areas, including classrooms and hallways. It is unclear why the Department has not installed additional cameras in these areas. Other locations that did not have security cameras during the time period of our investigation include some search locations, the clinics, intake holding pens, and individual cells.


Inmates, correction officers, and supervisors are well aware of these locations. Some even have names. For instance, the RNDC intake cells are reportedly known as “forget about me” cells.



We have identified several deficiencies relating to the Department’s systems, staffing, operations, and management that contribute to the excessive and inappropriate staff use of force against adolescents and the high incidence of inmate-on-inmate violence. The Department must implement corrective measures to address these deficiencies to adequately protect the adolescent population from harm. See Fisher v. Koehler, 692 F. Supp. 1519, 1564 (S.D.N.Y. 1988) (“evidence of systemic failures” in preventing improper use of force at New York City jails “supports a finding of a ‘policy of deliberate indifference’ as to staff-inmate violence on the part of defendants”).


  1. When we use the term “adolescents” or “adolescent inmates” in this letter, we are referring to male inmates between the ages of 16 and 18 housed at Rikers.
  2. We did not undertake a review of the adequacy of medical or mental health services provided to adolescent inmates at Rikers. Our discussions with DOHMH staff and review of DOHMH records were purely in support of our investigation into staff use of force, inmate-on-inmate violence, and the use of punitive segregation. However, our investigation nonetheless raises serious concerns about the quality of mental health services at Rikers; this critical issue, which warrants considerable attention and potentially raises concerns both under CRIPA and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), may be addressed in a future investigation by this Office.
  3. For various reasons, including because DOC was unable to locate some videos, and because DOC did not provide us with open DOC Investigation Division and staff disciplinary files, we did not receive all relevant records for these sample incidents.
  4. After City attorneys expressed their desire to sit in on these interviews, we reached an agreement with the City whereby our consultant interviewed inmates one-on-one, outside both our presence and the presence of City attorneys, to encourage full and candid discussion between the inmates and our consultant. We participated, however, in the interview of one adolescent inmate—Inmate D—who was involved in a use of force that is highlighted in the Appendix to this report.
  5. The Department is currently the subject of a class action lawsuit brought by current and former inmates at Rikers alleging system-wide, unconstitutional use of force by staff against inmates. See Nunez v. City of New York, 11 Civ. 5845 (LTS) (THK).
  6. See Department of Correction website,
  7. Additional facilities are located in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and a floating jail barge in the Bronx. See
  8. North Carolina is the other state.
  9. These figures include adolescent females, which represent approximately 10% of all adolescent admissions. The fiscal year runs from July through June of the following year.
  10. These use of force figures exclude “use of force allegations,” which refer to instances when sources other than DOC personnel report that force was used on an inmate. There were 56 use of force allegations at RNDC or EMTC in FY 2013 and 45 in FY 2012.
  11. From April 2012 through April 2013, adolescent fights resulted in 430 visible inmate injuries, according to DOHMH data.
  12. The internal report was not issued until 16 months after then-Commissioner Schriro directed the audit. RNDC staff’s failure to accurately and consistently document inmate fights also was noted during a prior security audit in early 2011, but little was done to address the problem.
  13. RNDC inmates suffered 22 jaw fractures during the first 5 ½ months of 2012 alone.
  14. Our investigation did not focus on incidents involving alleged sexual assault.  However, the limited information we obtained raises a concern that DOC may be under-reporting sexual assault allegations. In calendar years 2011 and 2012, DOC reported a total of only seven incidents of alleged sexual assault where the alleged victim was an adolescent. (Five of these incidents were determined to be unfounded or unsubstantiated and the other two investigations were pending at the time DOC provided the data.) This number seems extremely small given the size of the adolescent inmate population, the frequency of inmate-on-inmate violence, and the high rate of negative interactions between staff and inmates. Our consultant expressed concern as to whether allegations of sexual assault are being consistently reported and investigated in compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, 42 U.S.C. § 15601 et seq., and the relevant DOJ implementing regulations. We encourage the Department to examine these issues.
  15. The Department’s Use of Force Directive directs that force may be used “only as a last alternative after all other reasonable efforts to resolve a situation have failed.” The Directive further provides that “the amount of force used at any time should always be proportional to the threat posed by the inmate at that time,” and “staff must start with the minimum amount of force needed and escalate the amount of force used only if the situation requires escalation.”
  16. 24-hour reports include summaries of unusual incidents that occurred during a given day, including use of force incidents.
  17. The 64 incidents include 25 “use of force allegations.” There were 12 additional incidents that do not specifically reference a blow to the head or face but state that the officer punched the inmate and the inmate sustained an injury to his head or facial area.
  18. DOC’s Use of Force Directive prohibits using force “[t]o punish, discipline, assault or retaliate against an inmate.”
  19. The account of this incident is based on our consultant’s interviews of the two inmates, and DOI’s report summarizing its investigation and findings.
  20. In late 2013, DOHMH’s Bureau of Correctional Health Services (“CHS”) analyzed serious injuries involving staff uses of force for the entire inmate population. According to CHS’ report summarizing its review, 64 of the 80 inmates CHS interviewed reported having been struck by DOC staff after being restrained
  21. DOC does not require staff to document counseling efforts so it is difficult to assess compliance with this policy