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Report exposes culture of beatings at New York prison

A view of buildings on Rikers Island penitentiary complex in New York on May 18, 2011
A view of buildings on Rikers Island penitentiary complex in New York on May 18, 2011

Mentally ill inmates suffer overwhelmingly from pervasive brutality at America's second biggest jail, where guards beat up prisoners routinely, The New York Times reported Monday.

After a four-month investigation, the paper said 129 prisoners suffered "serious injuries" in altercations with guards over an 11-month period at New York's Rikers Island last year.

The injuries required medical treatment outside the jail and included fractures, wounds requiring stitches and head injuries.

Furthermore, officers used force on inmates 1,927 times in the first six months of 2014, a surge of more than a third compared with the same period last year, the newspaper said.

"The report 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," it said.

Violence committed by guards against inmates is "pervasive and routine," the newspaper wrote.

In 77 percent of the 129 cases, inmates had been diagnosed with mentally illness, and in 80 percent of the 129 cases, inmates reported being beaten after they were handcuffed.

"The growing numbers of mentally unstable inmates, with issues like depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are a major factor in the violence," said the newspaper.

New York mayor Bill de Blasio, who took office in January, promised to take immediate action when questioned about the report, saying his team had a "very aggressive plan for change."

"We work from the assumption that the current state of affairs is unacceptable, and we're going to be taking very serious and quick actions to change it," he told reporters.

The Times said Rikers Island has about as many people with mental illnesses, roughly 4,000 out of 11,000 inmates, as all the psychiatric hospitals in New York State put together.

"They make up nearly 40 percent of the jail population, up from about 20 percent eight years ago," the newspaper said.

Mentally ill inmates commit two-thirds of infractions in the jail and a vast majority of assaults on staff members, it said.

Staff have little training in how to subdue the mentally ill, resorting to pepper spray, take-down holds and fists.

In many of the cases, the guards' responses seemed to grossly outweigh the perceived offense, the newspaper said.

It detailed a prisoner who was severely beaten by four guards after attempting to hang himself, and another who was beaten for holding his fiancee's hand after being told not to.

The paper also said two prisoners died: a mentally ill homeless veteran whose cell reached more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.7 degrees Celsius) and a schizophrenic who swallowed toxic detergent and begged for medical attention for hours.

Federal authorities indicted a correction officer on charges of violating the schizophrenic man's civil rights.

None of the officers involved in the 129 cases has been prosecuted so far, The New York Times reported.