Over the past several months, as the culture of brutality at Rikers Island has become harder and harder to ignore, New York's corrections department has gestured toward reform. Incompetent officials resigning, thuggish guards punished when in the past they'd be given high fives and told to keep their mouths shut. We know there's a problem, officials are saying, but we're making it better. Don't believe them.
The New York Times' Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz, whose coverage—along with a federal investigation in August—has been instrumental in raising the curtain on Rikers violence, report that even as the de Blasio administration has publicly touted its own commitment to prison reform, violence at the prison complex has persisted "largely unabated."
The Times' brutal findings:
Seventy percent of the 62 beatings examined by The Times resulted in head injuries, even though department policies direct guards to avoid blows to the head unless absolutely necessary. And more than half the inmates sustained broken bones.
In October, a typical month, one inmate had his jaw shattered by a guard after being handcuffed and led into an elevator; another had his arm broken while handcuffed; and a third had three teeth knocked out.
The Times also identified 30 episodes from August to January in which officers suffered serious injuries in altercations with inmates. While most of the inmates involved sustained head injuries, nearly half the guards fractured bones in their hands and fingers, often after striking inmates in the head.
Guadalupe's altercation with correction officers started innocuously, with a disagreement over personal photos he had hung on the wall of his cell.
During a search in September, the guards tore down photos of his family, along with pictures of women he had cut out of magazines, he said in a telephone interview from Fishkill Correctional Facility. When he asked to see a supervisor, Mr. Guadalupe said, the officers pulled him into his cell, where there were no surveillance cameras, kicked and repeatedly punched him in the face and slammed his head against the wall.
The "August to January" distinction is important, because it means that these beatings happened after the federal investigation, after much of the Times' own reporting, and—in the case of violence that happened between November and January—after de Blasio publicly acknowledged that the prison "deeply needs a culture change." "Taken together," Winerip and Schwritz write of their findings, "they suggest that in the face of an unprecedented push to reform Rikers, guards are either being defiant or are indifferent to demands for change."
Reform doesn't happen overnight, especially in an organization as large and historically corrupt as Rikers. But whatever the city is doing to change things, it isn't working.
[Image via AP]