The U.S. Is Suing New York Over a Horrific Pattern of Cruel and Unusual Punishment


Federal prosecutors sued New York City on Thursday over alleged civil rights violations after a Department of Justice investigation found a "deep-seated culture of violence" against young inmates at the Rikers Island jail.

The Department of Justice's two-and-a-half year investigation's findings, released by Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, concluded that Rikers is a "broken institution" for adolescent prisoners, where corrections officers repeatedly used excessive force that violated the constitutional rights of prisoners, namely the "cruel and unusual punishments" prohibited by the Eighth and 14th amendments. 

"[Inmates] are entitled to be detained safely and in accordance with their Constitutional rights — not consigned to a corrections crucible that seems more inspired by Lord of the Flies than any legitimate philosophy of human detention," wrote Bharara in August. 

In the court documents, Attorney General Eric Holder and Bharara wrote that despite months of negotiations with the city, federal prosecutors "have been unable to reach agreement as to lasting, verifiable and enforceable reforms." The lawsuit was announced one day after Mayor Bill de Blasio visited the 10-jail lockup to announce the end of solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-old inmates.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, left, and Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte participate in a news conference on Rikers Island in New York, Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014.  Seth Wenig/AP

The DOJ's lengthy investigation found that the New York Department of Corrections "relies too heavily on punitive segregation as a disciplinary measure, placing adolescent inmates in what amounts to solitary confinement at an alarming rate and for excessive periods of time."

According to the initial August report, there were 517 reported staff use-of-force incidents in an average daily adolescent population of 791 — resulting in 1,059 injuries — at two Rikers Island jails housing teenage inmates during 2012. In 2013, that number jumped to 565 reported incidents of staff use-of-force in the same Rikers Island jails with an average population of 682 — resulting in 1,057 injuries. 

What do these "incidents" actually look like? Some inmates, like Robert Hinton, were brutally beaten for misbehavior, despite a history of mental illness.

"In April 2012, on a cell block for inmates with mental illnesses, five Rikers Island guards and a captain hogtied Robert Hinton, cuffing his hands behind his back and shackling his ankles, then carried him face down, by his arms and legs, into a solitary confinement cell," the New York Times reported. "When they emerged 10 minutes later, Mr. Hinton's nose was broken, his eyes were swollen shut, he was bleeding from the mouth and had a fractured vertebra."

A 2012 photo shows Rikers Island inmate Robert Hinton in a medical clinic in New York, bloodied with a swollen face, shortly after a beating.  Uncredited/AP

An administrative law judge recommended in September that the six officers involved in Hinton's brutal beating were fired, but this sort of excessive force persists at Rikers.

The new federal complaint released on Thursday argues that New York and its Department of Corrections have "engaged in a pattern and practice of violating the constitutional rights of male inmates ages 16, 17 and 18" causing them "serious physical, psychological and emotional harm." According to Buzzfeed, "between September and November alone there were 71 reported use-of-force incidents against 18-year-old inmates in facilities without surveillance cameras."

That's 71 potential Robert Hintons. 

Here's the federal complaint released on Thursday:

Here's the full DOJ report from August 2014: 

Editors Note: Mar. 2, 2015 

An earlier version of this article failed to cite a passage from Buzzfeed in accordance with Mic editorial standards. The article has been updated to properly attribute the language to Buzzfeed.