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New York City’s Rikers Island Jail Agrees to Federal Consent Decree, Reforms

The Rikers Island jail complex in New York City is notorious for excessive use of force against prisoners. It has been sued dozens of times by prisoners, prisoners’ rights organizations and even the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Prison Legal News has reported extensively on the numerous problems at Rikers, which culminated in a sweeping class-action settlement announced in June 2015. [See: PLN, July 2015, p.1].

 As noted in the preamble to the 60-page consent decree entered by the federal district court, “The First and Second Amended Complaints alleged that the Department engages in a pattern and practice of using unnecessary force against inmates in violation of their rights, and the rights of the members of the Plaintiff Class, under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution....”

The class members alleged that guards physically abused and beat them, generally without provocation, inflicting grievous physical injuries, including broken bones.

Under the consent decree, the parties agreed to the appointment of correctional expert Steve J. Martin to monitor Rikers Island’s compliance with the terms of the agreement. Specifically, the consent decree includes “an explicit prohibition on the use of high impact force, including ... strikes or blows to the head, face, groin, neck, kidneys, and spinal column ... [and] the use of force in response to an Inmate’s verbal insults ... subjecting an Inmate to harassment or public humiliation ... [and] the use of racial, ethnic, or homophobic slurs towards Inmates....” Also prohibited were “pressuring or coercing Inmates, Staff, or Non-DOC Staff not to report a Use of Force Incident.”

Rikers has developed a well-deserved reputation for cultivating a culture of retaliation against whistle-blowers, which helped stymie judicial intervention for many years. Now jail staff must comply with strict reporting protocols for all incidents involving use of force, and ensure “fair and prompt discipline” for employees who violate the new policies. Further, some guards are required to wear body cameras to help monitor compliance under a pilot program.

The consent decree also includes provisions related to staff training, a new use of force policy, new policies for juvenile prisoners and the installation of 7,800 more video cameras at the jail complex.

According to Mary Lynne Werlwas, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, “This Agreement is historic in scope, putting in place landmark reforms that the parties all believe will make the city jails dramatically safer. For too long, New York City prisoners have suffered dreadful injuries at the hands of staff – fractured facial bones, traumatic brain injuries, internal bleeding – from excessive and sometimes brutal force. This Agreement seeks to end this culture of violence and bring the city into the mainstream of professional corrections.”

Vanita Gupta, who heads the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, termed the class-action settlement “a model of corrections reform throughout the country.”

“I have repeatedly made clear our unwavering commitment to enduring and enforceable reform at Rikers Island,” added Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. “This comprehensive framework requires the City to implement sweeping operational changes to fix a broken system and dismantle a decades-long culture of violence.”

As part of the settlement, New York City officials also agreed to pay $6.5 million in attorney fees and costs. The consent decree received final approval by the district court on October 21, 2015. See: Nunez v. City of New York, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:11-cv-05845-LTS-JCF.

The court-appointed monitor issued his first status report in May 2016; it included detailed statistical data for use-of-force incidents. During the first four-month monitoring period, only 2% of reported use of force incidents were Class A, which resulted in “the most severe injuries.” The 130-page report concluded that jail officials had “thus far demonstrated a willingness to work in a collaborative fashion with the Monitoring Team to advance the goals of the Consent Judgment. To be sure, this is merely the beginning of an extended journey that will require continued collaborative relationships to sustain the pace and substance of the reform in a fashion that truly achieves the aims of the Consent Judgment.”

In other news involving Rikers Island, the jail faces a separate class-action suit alleging systemic rape of female prisoners by guards at the Rose M. Singer Center, based on incidents that occurred between 2009 and 2012. And in August 2016, New York Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley asked the city’s comptroller to audit data related to violent incidents at Rikers, to counter what she called “disingenuous” statistics cited by the mayor’s office that indicated levels of violence at the jail were decreasing.

“Tens of millions of dollars have been included in the budget over the past two fiscal years to make Rikers Island a safer place for inmates, detainees, and correction officers,” she wrote. “Having accurate data is essential to ensure that these dollars are spent appropriately.”

Sources:, New York Daily News, Associated Press,

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Related legal case

Nunez v. City of New York