Holding it down in Rikers Island, NY

Picture courtesy of NPR (http://www.npr.org/2014/10/15/356165968/culture-of-violence-pervades-rikers-juvenile-facilities)

In a juvenile facility in Rikers Island, New York, juvenile detainees are routinely subject to violence and told to “hold it down,” which means to keep it quiet and not report the violence or injuries to other prison guards or the infirmary.  Furthermore, most of the staff and officers are not trained in how to deal with the children:

“Historically here in New York, we’ve never trained our staff to do these things, even though we had an expectation somehow they would know… How do you manage a 16- and 17-year-old differently than an adult when we’ve never trained them in that manner?”

A reformed advocate, Ismael Nazario, who left Rikers for the third and last time in 2010 comments on the disheartening reality of how the corrections officers are handling the juvenile inmates:

“Couple of individuals that was close with I saw get [their] jaws broken by CO captains … arms broken, ribs,” says Ismael Nazario, who went to Rikers Island for the first of three times in 2005, at the age of 16. “This stuff been going on for the longest. This isn’t anything new.”

During his investigation of the facility, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara found that last year more than 40 percent of the boys were subjected to the use of force by guards at least once, and required emergency medical assistance more than 450 times.

The most disturbing treatment of the juveniles is arguably the correction officers’ frequent use of solitary confinement as punishment.  Rehabilitation and therapy are nowhere to be found.  A report of the Rikers Island facility earlier this year revealed that up to a quarter of the juvenile inmates were put in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day.  The teenagers, already confused and resentful from the physical and mental neglect and abuse they experienced before being caught up in the system, just sit and stew in anger in solitary.

“Don’t just let them sit there,” Nazario says. “At least give them some mental stimulation to divert the anger and frustration.”

Talk of ending solitary confinement is unsettling to correction officers who mainly view the children as “violent predator” who must be suppressed and punished for their own good.

“These kids … are coming in as violent predators,” says Thomas Farrell, a longtime Rikers guard and 25-year veteran of the City of New York Department of Correction who testified at the City Council on behalf of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association. He says officers need all the tools they can get to control the inmates, including solitary confinement, known at Rikers as “punitive segregation.”

“Basically the inmates are running around with impunity,” he says. “If you’re going to do away with punitive segregation, what other tool do you have to protect? The majority of the crimes are committed against inmates, so realistically we’re looking to save inmates from being hurt.”

Unfortunately, room for improvement in juvenile facilities is limited, literally.  Martin Horn, New York City’s correction commissioner from 2003-2009, agrees that smaller facilities with more officers would improve safety and provide more opportunities for rehabilitation, as is demonstrated by the “Missouri model.”

“If there were more officers, they would feel emboldened to control inmates’ behavior, [and] less obligated to collude with inmates to keep themselves safe,” Horn says.

However, it is not the lack of willingness to move to smaller facilities, but public outcry that is preventing the move.

Horn says the problems with Rikers go beyond staffing and training. Horn says that he tried several times to move the juvenile inmates off Rikers altogether, to smaller detention centers elsewhere in the city, but that he was blocked by communities that didn’t want them. Horn says that sends a clear message to everyone at Rikers.

“Rikers Island is symbolic. Rikers Island is New York City’s way of demonizing its own citizens, its own children. And that’s what we do when we put them on Rikers,” he says. “And when we do that, we send a not-so-subtle message to the staff that the community doesn’t want these kids, and the community doesn’t really care what happens to them.”