Audrey Strauss, the Acting United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced today that the United States has entered into an agreement (“Remedial Order”) with New York City and the New York City Department of Correction (“DOC”) to address ongoing non-compliance with core provisions of a Court-ordered Consent Judgment entered in October 2015 to reduce violence in NYC jails on Rikers Island and ensure the safety and well-being of inmates. The Remedial Order, which is subject to the final approval of the Court, requires DOC to implement operational reforms to fix systemic deficiencies that have continued to plague the jail system. Specifically, under the Remedial Order, DOC must adopt numerous new measures designed to reduce the unnecessary use of force against inmates, improve staff supervision, enhance the quality and timeliness of investigations into use of force incidents, ensure that correction officers are held accountable for their misconduct, and better manage and supervise the youngest inmates in custody. The independent federal monitor overseeing the Consent Judgment will assess compliance with the requirements of the Remedial Order.
Acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said: “Five years ago, this Office entered into a groundbreaking, Court-enforceable agreement requiring the City and the Department of Correction to implement sweeping, comprehensive reforms to protect the constitutional rights of inmates and ensure their safety. As documented repeatedly through the federal monitor’s reports to the Court, the City and DOC have failed to fulfill core obligations under that agreement. While this Office recognizes that changing a decades-long culture of violence is not a simple task, the City and DOC must do better. By agreeing to adopt the measures set forth in this Remedial Order, they have taken a step in the right direction. This Office will continue to closely monitor the implementation of the required reforms and vigilantly enforce the requirements of the Remedial Order and the underlying Consent Judgment.”
In August 2014, after completing a multi-year investigation, this Office issued a report that concluded that “a deep-seated culture of violence is pervasive throughout the adolescent facilities at Rikers, and DOC staff routinely utilize force not as a last resort, but instead as a means to control the adolescent population and punish disorderly or disrespectful behavior.” The United States proceeded to join a class action lawsuit against the City, Nunez v. City of New York, which alleged that DOC engaged in a pattern and practice of using unnecessary and excessive force against inmates throughout the jail system. In October 2015, Judge Laura Taylor Swain entered a Consent Judgment requiring DOC to develop and implement myriad new practices, systems, policies, and procedures to reduce violence and the use of excessive and unnecessary force. The Consent Judgment is subject to the oversight of the Court and an independent federal monitor.
Notwithstanding these Court-mandated reforms, the frequency with which correction officers use force against inmates has increased dramatically since the Consent Judgment was entered, with the average monthly use of force rate increasing by more than 100% from 2016 to 2019. In recent bi-annual reports to the Court, the federal monitor has found the City and DOC to be in non-compliance with numerous key provisions of the Consent Judgment. For instance, in his report filed on May 29, 2020, the federal monitor found that DOC “continues to struggle to properly manage Staff’s use of force” and went on to conclude that “a pattern of unprofessional conduct and hyper-confrontational behavior by Staff, an overreliance on alarms and the Probe Team, misuse of OC spray [i.e., pepper spray], use of painful escort techniques, and improper use of head strikes have all plagued the agency’s use of force since the Effective Date [of the Consent Judgment].”
The Remedial Order requires DOC, among other things, to:
- Improve the level of supervision of Captains by substantially increasing the number of Assistant Deputy Wardens assigned to jails.
- Evaluate inmates who have been involved in a significant number of use of force incidents to determine whether their mental health needs are being adequately addressed, and whether existing security and management protocols are appropriate for these inmates.
- Develop a new protocol governing the composition and deployment of Facility Emergency Response Teams (i.e., probe teams) in order to minimize unnecessary or avoidable uses of force by staff.
- By the end of the year, complete all outstanding investigations into use of force incidents that have been pending for a lengthy period of time.
- Utilize a recently created unit of trained investigators to investigate all use of force incidents within 25 business days to determine whether staff violated the use of force policy, or whether further investigation is necessary.
- Consistently not exceed caseload targets approved by the federal monitor for investigators responsible for investigating use of force incidents.
- Impose immediate corrective action on staff for violations of the use of force policy when recommended by the federal monitor.
- Expedite the prosecution of disciplinary cases involving violations of the use of force policy by, among other things, ensuring that at least 50 cases are heard each month by the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (“OATH”).
- With respect to units housing 18-year-old inmates, improve the staff assignment system such that the same correction officers, Captains, and Assistant Deputy Wardens are consistently assigned to work in the same housing unit and on the same tour, to the extent feasible.
- With respect to units housing 18-year-old inmates, implement a system that includes a variety of short-term and long-term rewards and consequences to incentivize positive inmate behavior and sanction negative conduct.
While this Office remains extremely concerned with DOC’s ongoing failure to comply with core requirements of the Consent Judgment, the Office recognizes that the agency has made some significant improvements in other areas since the Consent Judgment became effective. For example, DOC has installed thousands of wall-mounted video surveillance cameras throughout the jails to ensure complete camera coverage; created and provided a wide range of new training programs for staff; developed a new computerized case management system to track a wide range of information relating to use of force incidents; eliminated the use of punitive segregation for inmates under the age of 22; and stopped housing youths under the age of 18 on Rikers Island.
This case is being handled by the Office’s Civil Rights Unit. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jeffrey K. Powell and Lara K. Eshkenazi are in charge of the case.