A “hyper-confrontational” staff within NYC jails has led to a rise in the rate of use of force incidents—despite a historically low jail population, according to a report from a federal monitor overseeing the jail system’s operations.
The report is the 10th from federal monitor Steve Martin, who was appointed under a class action lawsuit settlement in 2015 regarding violence and abuse on Rikers Island. But since the federal monitor began reviewing NYC’s jails, the Department of Correction has “not yet demonstrated progress in reducing the frequency of unnecessary and excessive force,” the report released on Friday said.
“The driving forces of use of force remain the same—overreliance on Probe Teams and alarms, the use of unnecessarily painful escort techniques, unnecessary and too close use of OC [pepper] spray, and hyper-confrontational Staff behaviors,” the report said.
Probe Teams—like a jail riot squad deployed in an emergency—are notably unable to “establish a constructive dialogue” with those incarcerated to identify an underlying problem, according to the report. The teams often deploy pepper spray on residents who are passive, tackling them to the floor and bending or twisting their arms while restraining them.
The deployment of the teams spurs mayhem at the facilities and exacerbates inmates’ frustrations, which the report says “triggers a subsequent event. This vicious cycle must be interrupted."
Use of force incidents are often sparked by lack of substantial efforts to de-escalate tensions, the report found. One example includes a recent evening during which incarcerated residents were watching TV in the common area.
Guards ordered them back to their cells—but the group protested, requesting to stay later because of how hot temperatures were in their cells. The day before, they had been permitted to stay in the common area later in the evening.
Instead, a Probe Team was deployed—resulting in a “chaotic” chase to restrain one inmate. Though others remained passive, there weren’t enough flex cuffs to restrain people, and the jail riot officers launched pepper spray at the group, the report notes.
In another incident, inmates were to be searched during another day of excessive heat—which intensified agitation—though they had been searched the day before. An assistant deputy warden shoved an incarcerated person, which “set off a chain reaction of multiple uses of force and people were being taken to the floor.”
Staff used tactics against guidelines—as well as the “overly close positioning of a canine.” One inmate was slammed on the ground and another dragged on the ground while restrained as a Captain sprayed him in the face with MK-9 pepper spray at “point blank range.”
In 2020, the use of force rate per person remained higher than all years prior since the monitor was in place, despite historic lows in the jail population—from about 5,600 in January to below 4,000 in June. Violence had been rising previously.
Use of force rates against young adults has also notably increased—increasing 200 percent among 19- to 21-year-olds since 2016. Among 18-year-olds, the rates have increased by 174%.
There were 719 use of force incidents in March 2020 alone, the highest since the federal monitor has been tracking. Those numbers plummeted to a little more than 380 a month during the city's lockdown through the COVID-19 pandemic—when hundreds of people were released to help keep the jail socially distanced and mitigate the spread of coronavirus among inmates and staff.
“Although the decrease in the population was extremely positive on the macro-level, it did little to change the conditions of the confinement in the jails—the use of force rate remains unacceptably high,” the report says.
The time between formal discipline and the incident itself was found to be "simply unacceptable" and "far below what is needed to impose appropriate and meaningful discipline," the monitor wrote. About 88% of formal discipline happened a year after the incident, and about 44% took longer than two years.
“There is still, after years of monitoring from the court appointed monitor, a serious cultural problem that the department is not correcting,” Kayla Simpson, staff attorney at the Prisoners’ Rights Project with the Legal Aid Society, told Gothamist. “You can't correct your staff if you're not applying corrective action to them."
City Hall referred inquires to the Department of Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann, who emphasized that during this monitoring period, the department has “been rated in compliance with our obligation to conduct timely Use of Force investigations.”
More than 80% of backlogged investigations were closed, including more than 7,000 in the first half of the year, the department said. The department pointed to a rising jail population of “gang affiliated” individuals as well as a higher percentage of alleged violent felony offenders in the past six years.
“This latest report from the Nunez Monitor marks a major milestone for the Department in recognizing a hard-earned achievement for our staff,” Brann said in a statement. “We remain determined that each alleged Use of Force is investigated in a timely and effective manner as a key part of our ongoing commitment to creating safer and more humane facilities.”
A new unit to investigate use of force incidents completed all but 35 of 2,492 use of force incident investigations between February and June of this year by mid-August.
But among those, just 16% were referred to be fully investigated, while no action was taken in 44% of them, the report says. Another 33% resulted in "facility referrals," which allows each jail facility to address issues like "missing reports, operation or upload of handheld cameras, and delays in medical treatment." The facility referrals are intended to offer a more timely response to mitigate a problem, like through counseling the jail staffers.
For Simpson, Brann’s emphasis on closing the backlogs misses the point.
“It is a focus on process, and not a focus on unconstitutional violence, which is what led us here in the first place,” Simpson said.
DOC staff unions, the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association and the Correction Captains' Association, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.