Teenagers in U.S. Prisons: It's Time to End the Savagery and Neglect

When Inmate H, a teenager serving time at New York’s Rikers Island, fell asleep during a class, a female corrections officer wrapped metal handcuffs around her fist and hit him in the ribcage to rouse him. The tactic worked – Inmate H woke abruptly and shouted an obscenity at the officer. For this, he was: dragged into the corridor; punched in the eye; kicked in the face, head and back repeatedly by multiple officers; kicked in the mouth; and pepper-sprayed directly into the eyes. While the horror show was unfolding, two teachers inside the classroom reported that they heard the young prisoner screaming out, crying for his mother.

The story of Inmate H is just one of many examples of the brutal violence inflicted upon teenage prisoners at the second biggest jail in America, where nearly half of the juvenile population reports having been beaten at least once by guards. Many of these tales of injustice were laid bare in a stomach-churning report released this week by the US attorney Preet Bharara, who compared the youth experience at the “broken institution” of Rikers to the book Lord of the Flies.

Of all the revelations in the 79-page report, three stood out to me:

  • On any given day in 2014, there are nearly 500 teenagers aged between 16 and 18 years old serving time or awaiting court hearings on Rikers Island.
  • Around 51% of this teenage population have been diagnosed with a mental illness.
  • Fully 90.9% of the corrections officers who started working at the youth jail on Rikers in 2012 were on their first assignment from the training academy.

“Any juvenile justice professional will tell you that a detention setting should be the last option for any young offender,” Steve J Martin, a prison consultant who has worked with several jail systems, including Rikers, told me this week. “When you add mental illness into the mix, it creates a perfect storm” for the system and the people in it, he added.

This is exactly the problem: The least experienced guards are often assigned to look after the most challenging population of inmates, many of whom should probably have never been placed in a jail setting at all.

The relative inexperience of these guards is not just detrimental to inmate safety, it has consequences for the entire jail staff, many of whom feel they have no choice but to turn a blind eye to abuses. Martin Horn, the former commissioner of the New York Department of Corrections, explained to me this week that whistleblowers in the system fear losing more than just their jobs if they report their colleagues’ behavior:

Jails are scary places for the staff, too. They are dependent on each other for safety, so a blue wall of silence emerges, where people are fearful if they don’t back up the lies of a fellow officer, no one will come to their assistance when they get in trouble.

The Rikers report is so breathtaking because it doesn’t merely attempt to pin the jail’s issues on a few bad apples – it indicates that they’re the result of a series top-down, systemic failures.

But as bad as things are on Rikers Island – and they are quite bad – the same kind of savagery and neglect is prevalent in most major jail systems across the country. Los Angeles County has been the subject of numerous investigations and reports about the vicious treatment of inmates by guards. Cook County in Illinois is currently battling a class action lawsuit alleging a “sadistic culture of brutality and violence” in its jails. And just last year a federal judge approved a consent decreemandating sweeping changes to the notoriously violent New Orleans jail system.

That so many major American jail systems are experiencing many of the same problems – overcrowding, poorly trained and transient guards, an abundance of mentally ill prisoners and the overuse of solitary confinement – suggests that fixing them requires that we change how jails are run, who we choose to send to them and why.

There are sensible policy measures that can at least ameliorate some of the problems outlined in the Rikers report. In 2010, in an effort to keep young offenders (aged from 11 to 16) out of detention and in community-based care, New York City merged the Department of Juvenile Justice with the child welfare agency. If this measure were expanded to include 16- and 17-year-olds who are currently charged as adults under state law, there would surely be far few teenagers at Rikers.

Providing incentives to retain experienced officers in tough assignments should also help the situation. “As the situation deteriorates in any jail, it’s natural for officers who gain seniority to ask to be reassigned to a less stressful situation,” former commissioner Horn explained. So, in 2014, the corrections department authorized a pay increase for officers willing to work in more challenging environments – such as the youth jail at Rikers. It is, so far, unclear whether it will be enough of an incentive to attract and retain qualified and experienced staff. (But it might soon become an easier assignment: New York City mayor Bill de Blasio recently allocated $32.5m to build four dedicated units at Rikers for mentally ill prisoners to receive specialized treatment.)

When a mentality of “punch in the face first, cover up later” takes root, the bigger challenge for Rikers and other jail systems becomes changing the culture that has made it so apparently acceptable for prisoners to be treated as less than human. There will always be rogue officers who want to abuse their power, but they might be less likely to do so if a jail adopts a zero-tolerance policy toward abuse and those found abusing their power were to face criminal charges.

Hopefully, the latest report brings about that much needed cultural shift and, if it does, one of the country’s most notoriously bad jails might end up at the forefront of reform for a terribly broken system.

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