A 'Culture of Brutality' on Rikers Island

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A view of the buildings at Rikers Island. (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

On Monday, The New York Times published an investigation — based on more than a hundred incident reports — where it was found that Department of Corrections guards at Rikers Island had beaten inmates so severely that they required medical attention beyond the prison's capabilities. The Times also obtained a secret study conducted by the city's Health and Mental Hygiene department, which "helps lay bare the culture of brutality on the island and makes clear that it is inmates with mental illnesses who absorb the overwhelming brunt of the violence." Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz, The Times reporters who conducted the investigation, discuss their reporting and the policy implications.


Michael Schwirtz and Michael Winerip

Comments [16]

Stephanie from New Jersey

Due to the negligence of Correction Officers at Ryker's Island, my brother, Greg, was able to commit suicide while under their watch. If protocol was followed and meds given, he'd still be alive. Whenever I heard the voice of a CO that called in, I can't help but think if they were the last person my brother saw before he hung himself or if they were the last person to see him alive.

In his memory, my family and I will be participating in a Suicide Prevention 5k with the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention. Please feel free to read what I wrote about my brother, share the fundraising page, donate or join our team, team Sea The Light;

Thank you Michael Winerip, Michael Schwirtz and Brian Lehrer for bringing this to the public's attention.

Stephanie Giannotta

Jul. 16 2014 08:13 PM
Edward from Washington Heights AKA pretentious Hudson Heights

Give inmates in Rikers medicinal marijunana.

It might mellow out everybody.

Jul. 16 2014 01:54 PM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

Interesting that there are no whistle-blowers, no one in the Corrections Department or facility with enough conscience to want this to stop. It seems to me that perhaps the inmates are on the wrong side of those bars.

Notwithstanding, there needs to be a complete overhaul of the system and any guards found guilty of treating prisoners in this fashion - well, let's just say I'm a fan of Gilbert & Sullivan.

Jul. 16 2014 11:11 AM

The Times is so hypocritical about the care of the mentally ill. They publish article after article accusing psychiatrists of being lackeys of pharmaceutical company and who prescribe unnecessary and evil medications. Then it publishes articles about the poor care of the mentally ill.

Also, it's worth noting that one could find articles on the mistreatment of the mentally ill who are accused of crimes in NYC papers over a hundred years ago. Since then we've had the introduction of antibiotics, effective treatments for many illnesses including hypertension and diabetes, and virtually every type of surgery performed today. Yet we haven't yet found a way to compassionately care for the mentally ill.

Jul. 16 2014 10:46 AM

I was a senior executive at a state psychiatric center when, 25 years ago, we successfully tackled the issue of excessive use of seclusion and physical restraints. Many factors had led to this problem, including, in pertinent part: (1) Institutional acceptance of an aggressive, physical response. (2) The staff's feeling of value and competence in handling a dangerous situation; being part of a team. (3) The wish to provide meaningful consequences (i.e., punishment) for antisocial behavior in the perceived absence of a reliable institutional mechanism for this. (4) Poor understanding of and knowledge about dangerous situations and their precursors. (5) Staff's own feelings of fear, revulsion, hatred; and staff’s own possible histories of abuse.

Very briefly, our strategy involved 5 critical culture-change dimensions: (1) Visible, credible commitment by leadership to making the change; (2) Extensive training and retraining; (3) Consistent, relentless supervisory oversight and monitoring; (4) Data collection, dissemination and feedback to supervisors; (5) Accountability of supervisors as well as direct staff with reliable consequences when things go wrong.

To a significant degree, ALL situations of great power differential tend toward abuse. Think Amadou Diallou, fraternity hazing, sexual assault in the military. (This is particularly true where males are in the Top Dog position; this probably has a genetic component related to being primates. See the important book by Peterson and Wrangham, "Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence.") We are not going to solve this. All that we can do is to expect it and build the strategies I outlined above into any situation which will create such a differential.

Jul. 16 2014 10:33 AM
Jane from Queens

previous comment correction: LEGAL address!

Jul. 16 2014 10:26 AM
Jane from queens


Inmates may listen but do they have phones?

Is there any legs address for abuse of an imate?

Jul. 16 2014 10:23 AM

only the most pathological sadistic goons, could gratuitously scald a human being to death. revolting miscreants.....medieval savages !

Jul. 16 2014 10:22 AM

The CO calling in has a point, but cannot a special breed of CO be looked at? Someone with a social work background? Can we create such a position?

And that CO who called in didn't discuss the way that the beatings are described, which sound anger fueled and completely over the top. You don't beat a mentally ill person because they act mentally ill.

Jul. 16 2014 10:20 AM
David from nyc

You can't "black & white" this issue.
There is alot of grey in this issue.

However more/better staffing is a starting point.

Jul. 16 2014 10:19 AM
fuva from harlemworld

I know a few COs. They did not grow up dreaming of becoming COs. Rather, they assessed employment accessible to them, and chose based on earnings and benefits potential...We also need to understand the socioeconomics that produce these COs.

Jul. 16 2014 10:18 AM
Barnacle Bertha from NY, NY

"I proceed, Gentlemen, briefly to call your attention to the present state of Insane Persons confined within this Commonwealth, in cages, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience." - Memorial to the Massachusetts State Legislature 1843 by Dorothea Dix

Tomorrow is the 127th anniversary of Dorothea Dix's death. She lobbied on behalf of the 'indigent insane,' for the creation of the first generation of mental asylums.

Miss Dix is probably whirling in her tomb. Asylums were once the pride of a modern society trying to provide humane treatment to people. Over time, these hospitals were underfunded and mismanaged resulting in situation like Willowbrook. The subsequent deconstruction of psychiatric hospitals has resulted in the shifting of people back to prisons and almshouses (aka homeless shelters) is unacceptable. Medications do not work for everyone.

Jul. 16 2014 10:16 AM
fuva from harlemworld

Yes, this is also about the longstanding disparate mental health treatment across race and then class.

Also, this behavior is wrong, but the COs are under a lot of pressure.

Jul. 16 2014 10:14 AM
Public Defender from Bronx, NY

As a public defender in the Bronx, I have seen brutal beatings of inmates and defendants who have mental health issues, often with guards holding these individuals still to allow other guards to get a better shot at them. The notion, that your guest himself voiced, that the inmates "aren't entirely innocent" is one of the major roots of the problem. Until we internalize the fact that mental health issues deprive people of the impulse control and judgment that the rest of us have, we will never treat them fairly.

Jul. 16 2014 10:13 AM
john from office

Cops and Corrections officers come from the same social class as criminals.

Their actions reflect their class and where they come from.

Note all the news articles about corrections officers and their arrests or shooting each other.

But, inmates are violent, what would you have corrections do??

Jul. 16 2014 10:09 AM
HarbingerBK from Brooklyn

If these abused inmates ever get out, they will likely be brought back in for committing even more violent crimes. Sounds like the corrections officers should be locked up, too.

Jul. 16 2014 10:05 AM

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