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Justice Department Sues Over Conditions At Rikers Island Jail


New York City is being sued over how teenagers are treated at the jail on Rikers Island. The Justice Department announced the lawsuit today. It follows a scathing report that found a deep-seeded culture of violence against adolescent males. The city says reforms are underway, but as NPR's Joel Rose reports, federal prosecutors aren't satisfied.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: It wasn't exactly a secret that Rikers Island is a dangerous place, but the Justice Department's investigation showed just how violent it can be. It found that brutality by guards is routine, inmate-on-inmate violence is tolerated and major injuries are commonplace. This year there have been more than a thousand injuries involving adolescent boys out of an average daily population of just under 500.

VANITA GUPTA: The findings of the investigations of the United States attorney's office can only be described as deeply disturbing.

ROSE: Vanita Gupta is acting U.S. attorney for the Civil Rights Division. She says conditions at Rikers deprive adolescent inmates, many of whom are still waiting for trial of their constitutional rights.

GUPTA: We have learned, sadly, that Rikers is not alone. In far too many places, youth held in adult jails are subject to abhorrent and abusive conditions. We have also learned that mistreatment, violence and neglect are not inevitable. The problems we see on Rikers Island can be fixed.

ROSE: The Justice Department wants to join another lawsuit against the city - that case concerns the treatment of adult inmates at Rikers. Preet Bharara is the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. He says the two suits address similar problems at the city's Department of Corrections.

PREET BHARARA: The department allows a powerful code of silence to persistent at Rikers. Inmates charged with committing rule violations, including nonviolent infractions, have been routinely placed in what amounts to solitary confinement for weeks and sometimes months at a time.

ROSE: The powerful union that represents corrections officers declined to comment on today's lawsuit. Bharara's office had been negotiating with city officials since the report was released four months ago. And New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to make Rikers a priority.

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: The problems at Rikers have literally been decades in the making. Things that have come out in the last year or two didn't just happen recently. They were the results of policies and choices and realities that went on for decades.

ROSE: Yesterday, de Blasio visited the jail for the first time since taking office this year. He announced that the city has ended the practice of solitary confinement for 16 and 17-year-old inmates. And he talked about the city's plan to spend more than a hundred million dollars on improved mental health services at Rikers.

DE BLASIO: We knew this was a case where we needed to move quickly and progress is being made quickly.

ROSE: But change is not happening quickly enough for the Justice Department.

BHARARA: Given the long-standing sad state of affairs we are understandably quite impatient. And we would like things to get done at a faster pace.

ROSE: U.S. attorney Preet Bharara says he's been encouraged by what he's seeing from Mayor de Blasio and city corrections officials so far.

BHARARA: But in our view much, much more needs to be done to safeguard the constitutional rights of inmates at Rikers Island and to ensure that it is a safe and secure environment, not just for the inmates, but for the staff also.

ROSE: Bharara announced the lawsuit the day after a jury convicted a former Rikers corrections officer for refusing to seek medical help for a prisoner who died in his cell after swallowing a packet of detergent and crying out for help. Bharara says more prosecutions like that one may be coming too. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.
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