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Rikers Island Guards Treat Mental Illness with Violence

With around 4,000 of its 11,000 prisoners classified as mentally ill, Rikers Island jail holds more psychiatric patients than all 24 of the psychiatric hospitals in New York State combined. In 2006, prisoners with mental illness comprised about 20% of the jail's population. The percentage had almost doubled since then. But jails are not equipped to handle psychiatric patients and ill-trained guards may react to symptoms of mental illness with violence. Such is the case at Rikers Island, where, in eleven months, there were 129 instances of guards injuring prisoners so severely the jail's doctors could not provide adequate treatment. Those injuries included broken bones, perforated intestines, head injuries and wounds requiring stitching. Seventy-seven percent of the prisoners with serious injuries had been previously diagnosed with mental illness.

During a four-month investigation of guard violence against mentally ill prisoners at Rikers Island, the New York Times gained access to a secret internal study by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene on violence by Rikers Island guards which government officials had refused to release despite requests under the New York Freedom of Information Law. The study included the 129 cases of severe injury suffered by prisoners between January 1, 2013, and November 30, 2013. Although the report omitted the names of the injured, it noted that 80 of the 129 were personally interviewed and 80% of them reported having been beaten by guards while handcuffed. Five of the 129 beatings were guards' reactions to suicide attempts. The study also reported over half the prisoners had to deal with "interference or intimidation" from guards while they were seeking medical treatment.

After reviewing hundreds of pages of legal, investigative and jail records and interviewing current and former Rikers Island prisoners, guards and mental health workers, the Times discovered additional details on the 129 cases and uncovered previously unreported beatings. It also obtained the names of the prisoners in the secret study and interviewed the prisoners involved in two dozen of the most serious incidents. The investigation showed a culture of guard brutality at the jail with mentally ill prisoners suffering the brunt of the violence from guards who are poorly trained to deal with mental illness and react with overwhelming force even to minor provocations.

Since a culture of violence begets violence, Rikers Island has had to deal with the number of prisoner-on-prisoner fights increasing each year since 2009 and increases in prisoner-on-staff violence. In August 2014, Corizon Health, Inc., which provides health and mental illness treatment at Rikers Island, was cited by OSHA for failing to take steps to prevent violence against its employees and fined $71,000. In doing so, OSHA noted 39 instances of violent incidents involving medical, dental or psychiatric staff at the jail in 2013. This emphasizes how maintaining a culture of violence adversely affects everyone at the jail.

Source: New York Times

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