Corrections officers at Rikers quick to react with ‘iron fist,’ ‘relish confrontation’: report

NEW YORK — City correction officers at Rikers Island are quick to react to inmates with an “iron fist,” even when the situation does not necessarily merit a use of force, a federal monitoring group found.

The group, which began investigating Rikers after federal prosecutors sued New York City over a “Lord of the Flies” environment at the jail, found that despite reforms in the time since the suit, there are still “serious and problematic issues” with Department of Correction employees.

“Serious and problematic issues involving staff use of force continue in an unabated fashion,” the monitoring group found. “This ingrained propensity of Staff to immediately default to force to manage any level of inmate threat or resistance continues to produce high monthly incident numbers, especially in the absence of timely accountability for such misconduct.”

There were 423 staff uses of force against inmates in June, which included at least 35 possible head strikes, at least 100 instances of uses of force on restrained inmates, the use of at least 15 prohibited holds and at least 25 instances involving the use of institutional equipment, the report found.

It’s not clear how many of those acts of force were appropriate. The federal monitors noted that physical force is necessary in some instances to maintain order, keep staff and inmates safe, and to enforce the law.

DOC recently revised its use of force policy to provide clearer guidance, Commissioner Cynthia Brann said. Officials believe the new guidelines for staff will help minimize injuries to both staff and inmates.

“We have also improved staff training and equipped them with self-defense tactics and de-escalation techniques that enable them to defuse conflicts and, when able, avoid uses of force,” Commissioner Brann said. “As of today, nearly 100 percent of our uniform staff have been trained with these skills.”

Inmates suffer serious and minor injuries with less frequency now when staff use force, DOC data shows. There’s been a 53 percent decrease in serious injuries in the last three years.

But the new DOC use of force policy didn’t start until Sept. 27. In April, an officer restrained an inmate and was then urged by a captain to use further force, even though the inmate was no longer exhibiting any resistance, according to the report. The number of captains repeatedly involved in problematic use of force incidents is “disturbing” and ” one of the clearest examples of the lack of accountability in the DOC,” the report notes.

“The circumstances related to particular incidents suggest that some staff relish confrontation rather than act to avoid it,” the monitoring group found. “Confrontation avoidance appears to be anathema to many supervisors and line staff, and is far too often not even put into play.”

Still, some positive change has been made, according to the report.

Former DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who was hired to reform Rikers in 2014, “set a tone for the Department that reform is necessary, committed essential resources, and established some key strategies for the Department to evaluate its use of force more rigorously.”

Under Ponte, New York City became the first large jail system to ban the use of solitary confinement for inmates under the age of 22. Mental health and education programs were also expanded, and thousands of surveillance cameras were installed.

Ponte resigned his post earlier this year after he was criticized for repeatedly  using his city-owned vehicle to drive to vacations, but the federal monitors expressed confidence in the people in charge of Rikers to bring about more reform.

“The Mayor appointed competent, committed, and reform-minded individuals in the roles of Acting Commissioner and Acting Chief of Department,” the monitoring group said. “The Monitoring Team is confident that these individuals will maintain—if not accelerate—the pace of reform and will ensure that disruption is minimized during the leadership transition.”

The city also plans to shut down Rikers. An estimated 10-year timeline involves moving inmates elsewhere. Mayor Bill de Blasio intends to replace it with smaller jails.

“I am the first mayor in our history to say we not only must close, we will close it,” de Blasio said Tuesday night. “It doesn’t work anymore.”