U.S. to NYC: Ending Solitary Confinement of Teens Is Not Enough

Federal officials are suing for speedier reforms a day after de Blasio ends solitary confinement for some teens at Rikers Island.

Department of Correction Commissioner Joe Ponte (far left), New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Warden Becky Scott talk during de Blasio’s tour of Second Chance Housing at Rikers Island on Dec. 17. (Photo: Getty Images)

Dec 18, 2014· 1 MIN READ

Andrea Stone has covered national news, politics, the Pentagon, Capitol Hill and foreign affairs for USA Today, The Huffington Post and AOL News, reporting from 47 states and 26 countries. She helped launch Al Jazeera America's website and now writes for National Geographic, Smithsonian and other outlets.

Broken jaws, broken eye sockets, broken noses. Punching, striking, and kicking in the head and face to punish or answer verbal taunts. And endless weeks or even months in solitary confinement.

Those are just some of the abuses against adolescent inmates cited by federal prosecutors Thursday as they revealed plans to sue New York City for civil rights violations at scandal-prone Rikers Island jails. In a 36-page complaint, the U.S. Justice Department said the city’s Department of Correction “has engaged in a pattern and practice of using unnecessary and excessive force against inmates.”

The federal lawsuit came one day after New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio toured Rikers in his first visit since taking office. Afterward, he announced that the city had ended solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-olds at Rikers.

But that was one small step. In joining an existing class-action lawsuit filed by the The Legal Aid Society, prosecutors made clear they had lost patience with the pace of change by staff at Rikers.

In August, the office of Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, issued a scathing report that resulted from a two-and-a-half-year investigation that found “a deep-seated culture of violence is pervasive throughout the adolescent facilities at Rikers, and DOC staff routinely use force not as a last resort, but instead as a means to control the adolescent population and punish disorderly or disrespectful behavior.”

The report outlined more than 70 remedial measures the DOC should take. Yet, while prosecutors said the department has taken some positive steps since last summer—including reducing the inmate-to-staff ratio and moving away from using solitary confinement as punishment—“much more needs to be done.”

Attorney General Eric Holder, whose office has taken similar action elsewhere, said of Rikers: “We‘ve seen alarming evidence of unnecessary and excessive use of force against juveniles, as well as a systemic failure to protect them from violence and deeply troubling—and potentially scarring—use of solitary confinement.”

Advocates applauded the government’s action.

“We welcome the Department of Justice’s intervention in our lawsuit, which is a powerful instrument for reform. The DOJ findings confirm what The Legal Aid Society has documented and reported for years about the culture of violence at Rikers Island’s jails,” said Seymour W. James, attorney-in-chief of The Legal Aid Society.

“Mental health professionals tell us that the developing teen brain is permanently harmed by time spent in solitary. These young people often self-harm for years after,” said Sarah K. Steiner, a criminal defense attorney and former Queens County prosecutor.

“It’s important to remember that anyone being held there is either waiting for trial and therefore still presumed innocent, or has been found guilty of a crime, generally a misdemeanor, where the sentence is less than a year,” she said. “Many of the people held at Rikers are there because their families are unable to come up with $500 or $1,000 in bail money.”