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NY Crime
U.S. Sues New York City Over Rikers Troubles
From the Wall Street Journal of Fri, 19 Dec 2014 00:40:52 EST
Rikers Island juvenile detention facility inmates.
Rikers Island juvenile detention facility inmates. Associated Press

Federal prosecutors filed a lawsuit Thursday against New York City for alleged civil-rights violations at Rikers Island, demonstrating their impatience with the city’s efforts to improve conditions at the jail complex.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan alleges the city has for years failed to address systemic deficiencies at Rikers, despite a history of widespread use of force against inmates, particularly adolescents.

The office asked a federal judge for permission to join a pending class-action lawsuit against the city over alleged violence against Rikers inmates.

“Sometimes it’s the case that bureaucracy can get in the way of reform-minded thinking and comprehensive cultural change,” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said. “Given the long-standing sad state of affairs at Rikers Island, our impatience is more than understandable.”

Marti Adams, a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio ’s office, said city officials were already implementing many of the changes sought by the U.S. attorney and plaintiffs in the class-action case. “We are beginning to unwind the decades of neglect that have led to unacceptable levels of violence on Rikers Island,” Ms. Adams said.

In August, Mr. Bharara’s office issued a report that alleged a culture of entrenched violence at Rikers. The report, which followed a 2½-year investigation, detailed alleged abuse of adolescent inmates at the hands of correction officers and prompted policy changes in the city’s Department of Correction and at Rikers Island.

The federal intervention comes a day after Mr. de Blasio visited Rikers for the first time since becoming mayor. At the jail Wednesday, Mr. de Blasio and Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte announced an official end to punitive solitary confinement of 16- and 17-year-old inmates. Mr. Bharara on Thursday applauded the city’s efforts, but said “much more needs to be done.”

From September through November this year, Mr. Bharara said, there were 132 use of force incidents by staff involving inmates between 16 and 18 years old. The complaint says 18-year-old inmates, “including many with mental illnesses,” were still being placed in punitive solitary confinement for excessive periods.

It also alleges the city failed to conduct thorough investigations into use-of-force incidents, and allowed a “powerful code of silence” to persist at the jail. Department of Correction supervisors “have been deliberately indifferent” to violence in the jail and didn’t discipline officers accused of misconduct, according to the complaint.

The case Mr. Bharara’s office seeks to join is Nunez v. City of New York, which stems from a 2011 complaint filed by former Rikers inmate Mark Nunez. On the morning of March 4, 2010, according to Mr. Nunez’s initial complaint, a Rikers captain sprayed him with mace, beat him with his fists and radio, and then dragged him as other correction officers looked on.

Mr. Nunez said he incurred the officers’ anger by objecting to a punishment meted out by a guard over an untidy pantry.

Mr. Nunez’s case became a class-action suit in federal court in Manhattan. Court documents show city and plaintiff lawyers had been meeting since October to discuss a proposed settlement agreement. A Dec. 5 letter from the plaintiffs’ lawyers to U.S. Magistrate Judge James C. Francis asked for more time for settlement discussions.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara at a news conference in New York on Thursday.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara at a news conference in New York on Thursday. Reuters

In a statement Thursday, Mr. Bharara’s office said it had met with the city’s Law Department several times since the August report and that some discussions had included attorneys representing the Nunez plaintiffs.

“However, thus far, although there has been some constructive dialogue, the city has been unwilling to commit to an enforceable agreement including the type of reforms and oversight that are necessary to fully address the long-standing problems at Rikers and safeguard the constitutional rights of inmates,” Mr. Bharara’s office said.

Mr. Bharara said Thursday the city had consented to his office’s joining the lawsuit Wednesday night. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder endorsed the intervention in a memorandum filed Thursday.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs in the class-action suit said they welcomed the move by the U.S. attorney’s office. “We and our co-counsel look forward to working with the Department of Justice to obtain appropriate relief for our clients and ensure that their constitutional rights are protected,” said Bill Sussman, of Ropes & Gray, who is representing the plaintiffs along with the Legal Aid Society and law firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady.

Neither the city’s legal team nor the plaintiffs’ lawyers would comment on the settlement discussions Thursday. The Legal Aid Society didn’t respond to requests for comment.

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