The use of force by correction officers against prisoners at Rikers Island has increased by 240% over the past decade, and 40% of the jail's 12,000 inmates have been diagnosed with a mental illness, up from 20% eight years ago.
The Times has a thorough report on the jail's "subculture of violence" that has proliferated despite a 15% drop in its population. Advocates for the inmates say that correction officers wantonly beat and abuse them, and overuse solitary confinement as a form of punishment (in February the DOC said they would no longer use the measure against mentally ill inmates, and state prisons issued a similar directive as part of a legal settlement).
Earlier this month four correction officers were charged with assaulting an inmate and filing false reports on the incident.
The president of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association countered that guards have little choice but to use force when confronted by desperate and unstable inmates: “The inmate can use and abuse and do whatever it is he wants, and when a correction officer attempts to restrain the inmate and use whatever force is necessary to defuse the incident, the officer goes to be charged with a crime…[Mentally ill inmates] need medication, treatment, psychological help. They don’t need a corrections officer.”
Mayor de Blasio recently appointed Joseph Ponte as head of the DOC, and noted that the department "sadly lagged behind other corrections systems in terms of updating its practices and procedures."
Dr. James Gillian, who published an internal report on Rikers' mentally ill inmates, described a recent scene at the jail:
On a recent tour of a juvenile solitary confinement unit at Rikers, he said, “We saw young kids who had been really beaten to a pulp.”
One young inmate, Dr. Gilligan said, had been handcuffed by correction officers, who then banged his head against the floor. The inmate, he said, had a concussion and had lost a tooth, and he was vomiting and urinating blood. The inmate was taken to a medical unit for treatment, he said.