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Inside Rikers Island: Curbing violence among adolescents

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PIX11 News took an exclusive look inside the halls of Rikers' most violent wing -- the adolescent building known as "RNDC," for Robert N. Davoren Complex.

It's a place television cameras are rarely granted access to, but PIX11 News went inside, alongside Corrections Commissioner Joe Ponte.

Ponte was hired two years ago to fix the broken system.

"There's millions of dollars of work neglected over the years," Ponte said.

In 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio created a 14-point plan to fix the issues including corruption, abuse and violence.

Ponte has been on the job for almost two years. Last year, he took a bold step at Rikers by eliminating punitive segregation, known as solitary confinement, for 16 and 17-year-olds.

"Use of long term punitive segregation on young people is a bad idea," Ponte said. "There has been a reduction in violence and a calming effect on the population. There's been a reduction of serious assaults on staff as well."

However, the plan stopped short of eliminating punitive segregation for 18- to 21-year-olds, mainly because correction officers were not on board with the plan.

Norman Seabrook heads up the Correction Officer's union.

"That allows an inmate to assault or attack officers, inmates and civilians without any course of action to take against them because you can't isolate them," Seabrook said.

Just last month, a group of teen inmates removed from solitary attacked five officers, fracturing one's nose.

Ponte said there are other ways to handle the violence.

"There are consequences," Ponte said. "If you commit a criminal act, you will get arrested and get additional charges."

The commissioner said he is looking for new ways to keep inmates busy, involving new programs that would create incentives for good behavior.

"Programming is critical to our success," Ponte said.

But is it working? That is the question. In 2015, there were over 9,000 assaults on record, the highest in five years.

However, Ponte said the numbers have decreased when it comes to serious assaults.

"Serious assaults on staff are down. We classify assaults specifically so you can't make it up," Ponte said. "If someone cuts you, thats a serious assault."

Former inmates discussed with PIX11 abuse by the correction officers themselves. However, Ponte said that is just not the case.

"No one is going to back an officer who seriously hurts an inmate intentionally," Ponte said.

Over 100 cameras will be installed by the end of 2016 to keep both staff and inmates on their toes. It's a slow movement in a better direction.

"This took a years plus work," Ponte said.