Resting off the northern end of Queens in the East River, connected to the borough only by a 4,200 ft. bridge, Rikers Island is New York City’s largest prison compound. A sprawling 413 acre complex of ten separate correctional centers, the island has a sordid history. A 2007 ruling banned the prison’s policy of strip searching all incoming inmates, no matter the crime. In 2005, a segregated block for LGBT prisoners, known as “gay housing,” was closed due to controversy. And now, new figures from a public records request made by the Associated Press show that Rikers Island guards logged an obscenely high number of use-of-force incidents.
“Indeed, we find that a deep-seated culture of violence is pervasive,” a federal investigation from August reported. “…Staff routinely utilize force not as a last resort, but instead as a means to control…”
According to the findings, guards reported 4,074 use-of-force incidents in 2014. September, alone, saw 406 incidents.
Use-of-force incidents can be categorized into three categories. Class C involve minor to no injuries. Use of pepper spray would be classified as Class C. Class B incidents result in bruises or swelling, injuries which are easily treatable. And Class A incidents involve broken bones, deep cuts, and any other injuries which require hospitalization, according to the AP.
Ambrorix Celeeomio, an 18 year-old inmate with an IQ of 65, was one such example.
After an altercation with guards in a Rikers cafeteria, Celeeomio’s lawyer says her client was pepper sprayed and beaten before being taken to an island clinic, covered in blood.
The island houses 11,000 inmates on any given day, and includes men from a broad range of ages – some as young as 16 – and crime background. Inmates convicted of misdemeanor charges like trespassing are thrown in with condemned murderers.
While it may be expected that such a large facility would have a high number of violent incidents, the data also shows that use-of-force has increased over the last eight years, even as the prison population has dropped.
2006 saw 1,299 reports at a time when Rikers housed 14,000 inmates.
“If I physically touch an inmate, it’s a use of force irrespective of an injury happening,” Norman Seabrook, head of the Correction Officer’s Benevolent Association, told the AP. He attributes the rise in use-of-force reports to a stricter policy of documentation.
“Absolutely we’re saying, ‘Document everything. Don’t physically get into an altercation but use chemical agents. Spray them. Spray everybody you’ve got to spray but don’t punch nobody out. Just spray whoever you’ve got to.”
Still, many experts associate excessive exposure to pepper spray as a health risk. A 2004 study found that high doses of the chemicals used in pepper spray can lead to severe respiratory problems.
“Capsaicins inflame the airways, causing swelling and restriction,” the report states. “And this means that pepper sprays pose a genuine risk to people with asthma and other respiratory conditions.”
The federal investigation from August also found severe signs of violence against adolescent inmates.
“…Adolescents have sustained a striking number of serious injuries, including broken jaws, broken orbital bones, broken noses, long bone fractures, and lacerations requiring sutures,” the report says.
The report also stresses investigators’ belief that violence extends beyond adolescent inmates.
“Indeed, while we did not specifically investigate the use of force against the adult inmate population, our investigation suggests that the systemic deficiencies identified in this report may exist in equal measure at the other jails on Rikers.”
Federal prosecutors who have sued the Department of Corrections for failure to enact reforms are meeting with city lawyers and correction officials Wednesday to discuss many of the prison’s problems.
The new figures come during a tense time for police departments’ public relations. Protests have erupted across the country in the last few months in response to police killings of unarmed suspects.
The figures also come at a tricky time for New York City Mayor de Blasio, who is currently trying to find a delicate balance between his administration’s sympathies for protesters and a police department which has become increasingly disillusioned by his new leadership.