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Violence at New York City’s Rikers Island Jail Increasing Even as Population Falls

Despite the jail’s population being lower than any time since 1945, constant monitoring by federal authorities and agreements by city government to regulate the jail’s violent culture, uses of force have risen since 2016 — from 390 incidents per month to 600, a whopping 54 percent increase. The numbers were reported on August 6, 2020 by a federal appointee who monitors the jail system

Prior to 2015, New York City’s Legal Aid office, assisted by several private law firms, had prosecuted a class action civil rights lawsuit challenging confinement conditions at RIJC. When the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) joined the suit as plaintiff-intervenor, the city quickly entered into a settlement largely favoring the plaintiff class. (See: Nunez v. City of New York,  Case No. 1:11-cv05845-LTS-JCF, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY).

The original Nunez agreement allowed for thousands of wall-mounted video surveillance cameras as well as major policy revisions aimed at reducing uses of force by jailers. Another segment of the agreement allows for court-approved monitors to be physically present at RIJC to report on staff compliance and any noncompliance to the court and attorneys.

Because of some jailers’ determined resistance to court-approved reforms, coupled with the steady rise of violence against prisoners, federal intervention has shifted from the civil rights division to the DOJ’s prosecutorial arm, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss stated the city and RIJC “have failed to fulfill [their] core obligations” outlined in the original settlement. Strauss and the city have signed onto a new, even more stringent agreement, which is pending court approval.

The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association is a union that represents RIJC’s jailers and their interests. They stated the new agreement’s provisions “are straight out of the Legal Aid playbook, one-sided and only concerned with compromising the safety of our officers by treating them like the criminals they are charged to supervise.”

Legal Aid attorney Mary Lynne Werlwas pleased with the latest agreement. She stated that after the court issues its approval, “we will vigorously enforce it.”

Four smaller jails are planned to replace Rikers. They are scheduled for completion by 2026. 


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