Court Approves Historic Agreement on Jail Brutality

The federal court  approved a consent decree to reform the widespread abuse of prisoners by correction staff on Rikers Island.  The Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, together with co-counsel Ropes & Gray and Emery, Celli, Brinckerhoff & Abady brought the class action, Nunez v. New York, in 2012 to halt excessive force by City jail staff.  The United States Department of Justice joined the lawsuit as a plaintiff in December 2014.  

The Consent Judgment is an enforceable federal consent decree that will be monitored by correctional expert Steve J. Martin of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.  The Consent Judgment requires the Department of Correction to implement new policies and practices to curb the rampant misuse of force and end the culture of violence which emboldens staff to abuse prisoners and lie about such abuse with impunity.  Some of the remedial measures in the 60-plus page document include:

  • A new use of force policy providing clear directions on when force may be used, and expressly limiting certain categories of force;
  • Revamped staff  training to teach staff to defuse conflicts without force and avoid unnecessary injury to anyone when force is necessary; 
  • Robust accountability measures, including requiring staff to report force honestly and completely, ensuring fair and professional use of force investigations of use of force, and requiring fair and timely discipline of staff who misuse force;
  • Vastly expanded video surveillance, through stationary, handheld and body-worn cameras;

“We believe that this agreement, if implemented, will end the pernicious pattern of institutionalized staff violence against inmates held out of the public view in the City jails.  For too long, New York City prisoners have suffered dreadful injuries at the hands of staff –  fractured facial bones, traumatic brain injuries, internal bleeding – from excessive and sometimes brutal force.  This Agreement seeks to end this culture of violence and bring the City into the mainstream of professional corrections,” said Mary Lynne Werlwas, one of the Legal Aid lawyers who spearheaded the case.  Veteran Legal Aid Supervisor Jonathan Chasan added, “this comprehensive agreement, should lead to a significant reduction in staff misuse of force, improvements in the quality and honesty of use of force investigations, and fewer of the horrible injuries we have seen repeatedly inflicted on our clients over the years.” 


The New York Times
Judge Approves Settlement of Suit on Rikers Island Brutality
OCT. 21, 2015 

A federal judge gave final approval on Wednesday to a far-reaching settlement agreement intended to remake Rikers Island  by addressing pervasive brutality at the New York City jail complex.

The decision brought an end to four years of contentious litigation over alleged abuses at Rikers and made way for various changes, including the addition of thousands of surveillance cameras and more restrictive policies governing when officers can use force. It also provides for the appointment of a federal monitor to oversee conditions at the country’s second-largest jail system.

After announcing her approval of the deal, Judge Laura Taylor Swain of Federal District Court congratulated the parties involved for “groundbreaking work.”

“The settlement agreement is an important example for other correctional systems throughout the country,” she said.

In July, the city reached agreement about the terms of the settlement with lawyers for a dozen current and former inmates who claimed to be victims of violence by correction officers.

The plaintiffs in the case, Nunez v. City of New York, received a significant boost last December, when Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, joined a class-action suit brought by the Legal Aid Society as well as the law firms Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady and Ropes & Gray. In August 2014, Mr. Bharara issued a scathing documenting horrific treatment of teenagers at Rikers.

“For too long, a culture of violence has prevailed at Rikers Island, denying those within its walls the protections of the Constitution, rights to which all in this country, including prison inmates, are entitled,” Mr. Bharara said in a statement. “Through this agreement, we will remain vigilant in ensuring that reform at Rikers Island is enduring and enforceable.”

At the hearing on Wednesday, Celeste Koeleveld, a lawyer for the city, said that the agreement “dovetailed” with reform efforts already underway at Rikers. The city’s Correction Department, she said, had already begun putting many of the settlement’s provisions into effect.

“The department is prepared to hit the ground running,” Ms. Koeleveld said.

Central to the agreement is the treatment of teenagers at city jails. Last year, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, pre-empted the settlement by doing away with solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-old inmates. The correction commissioner, Joseph Ponte, has also vowed to eliminate solitary for everyone under age 22 by the end of the year.

Even with the settlement provisions and oversight of the federal monitor, fixing Rikers remains a daunting task. The level of violence continues to increase despite a year-and-a-half effort by the city to add new therapeutic programs, increase staffing and better train officers to handle difficult inmates, particularly those with mental illnesses.

This month, the city comptroller’s office chided the de Blasio administration  for pouring tens of millions of dollars into fixing Rikers with little to show for it.