City Report Suggests Progress In Effort To Curb Violence At Rikers Island

Samantha Schmidt

After years of struggling to curb brutality by guards at the Rikers Island jail complex, the New York City Correction Department on Tuesday heralded a substantial drop in the use of physical force on inmates resulting in serious injuries in the first half of the year.

The department reported that in the first six months of 2016, there were 39 uses of force by correction officers resulting in serious inmate injuries, compared with 72 during the same period in 2015. Total inmate assaults on staff members dropped 20 percent, to 394 episodes from 494 during the first half of the year. Over all, the department said, episodes involving the use of force fell 2 percent, to 2,223 from 2,268, the first decrease since 2011.

The signs of potential progress come more than a year after a federal monitoring team was appointed to oversee the city’s jails under a settlement meant to end widespread violence and dysfunction at Rikers. In May, the monitors noted significant reforms at the jail complex, but also problems of deep concern, including officers’ continued use of physical force against inmates.

Bryanne Hamill, a member of the Board of Correction, which monitors conditions at city jails, said the data released on Tuesday suggested that the recent reforms at Rikers were starting to shift a “culture of violence” there to a “culture of respect and restraint.” She also praised Joseph Ponte, the correction commissioner, for the reduced use of solitary confinement, or punitive segregation.

“He has been able to reduce the violence while also dramatically decreasing time spent in punitive segregation,” Ms. Hamill said.

While the department’s report showed a decline in use-of-force episodes that caused injury, it also showed an increase in uses of force that did not result in injury, pointing to a shift toward less-violent tactics. Officers have been using chemical spray instead of physical force more frequently, Mr. Ponte said in an interview.

“Some of the use of force is not avoidable,” Ms. Hamill said. “I’m a supporter of using chemical spray if it’s used appropriately and it’s decontaminated properly.”

City officials credited the apparent decline in violence to Mr. Ponte’s push to make Rikers safer for the staff and inmates, an effort that has included added training for officers in how to defuse tensions among inmates and how to interact with adolescent inmates and those with mental illness.

“It all starts and ends with the officer,” Mr. Ponte said. “When staff are trained and supported and empowered, we’ve gotten very good results.”

Mr. Ponte has also expanded camera coverage in the jails, while adding at least two hours of educational and vocational programs a day for most inmates.

Ms. Hamill attributed a drop in gang violence at Rikers to a revamped system of classifying and assigning inmates to housing. Those in rival gangs are now less likely to be held near one another, she said, helping to reduce violence. Mr. Ponte confirmed that the department was trying to “balance the gang makeup.”

“We worked in a deep-dive way to identify who was driving the violence,” he said.

Mary Lynne Werlwas, a Legal Aid Society lawyer for the plaintiffs in the class-action suit that led to the federal settlement, said the data cited by the city on Tuesday was misleading and had been “cherry-picked.” She said it would be more accurate to compare all of the 2016 fiscal year, which ended on June 30, with all of the 2015 fiscal year. That comparison, she said, shows an increase in all uses of forces. She added that the jail population had shrunk this year, which may help explain a drop in the use of force.

“More work is needed to avoid resorting to unnecessary use of force in the jails,” she said. “The Constitution prohibits gratuitous use of force, regardless of whether it results in an injury.”

Union officials said the data on assaults on the jail staff were not worthy of promoting.

“Can you imagine the outrage in this city if it was reported that 394 New York City police officers were assaulted in the Bronx this year?” Elias Husamudeen, president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, said in a statement. “No other jurisdiction in the country would brag about these numbers.”

Mr. Ponte said that despite the positive trend, he is eager to see further reductions in the overall use of force. “I don’t want to paint the fact that we’re in a great place,” he said. “There is much more to do.”