Pattern of Staff Brutality Against Inmates Shows Little Change

The Nunez Monitor’s Report provides a window into how the City’s practices compare to its rhetoric about reform in the City jails. And what we see through that window is that, more than two years into Commissioner Ponte’s tenure and a year after the landmark Nunez settlement, the pattern of staff brutality against prisoners shows evidence of little change.

Use of force reached a record high in the past year, despite a declining prisoner population. Many of the gains that were made late last fall, when the number of staff and inmates injured in use of force incidents went down considerably, have evaporated. Injuries from uses of force have increased once again and now are more frequent than they were when the Consent Judgment was filed. While there is unquestionably considerable effort being directed at implementing change, these trends belie the City’s repeated public claims of progress.

More disturbingly, the patterns of force that have long characterized brutality in the City jails continue. We share the concerns expressed by the Monitor over the apparently high frequency of unnecessary uses of head strikes and pepper spray; the frequency of use of force on people who are already cuffed; the absence of handheld video footage of uses of force, despite it’s being required; and the Department of Correction’s “failure to consistently and systematically identify and analyze patterns and trends about the incidents.”

The City’s unwillingness to devote the resources the Department of Correction needs to roll out its very promising new training programs to its staff will only perpetuate these problems. The Department needs adequate training facilities, and needs them now. The sooner staff can receive the benefit of this training, and be provided with new tools and techniques of professional correctional management, the sooner the promise of reform can be seen on the ground. However, no amount of line staff training can change the culture of the City jails if the leadership in every facility is not committed to the reform effort, and held accountable for the misuse of force in his or her facility.

An important observation is that the highest rate of use of force incidents has occurred at the West Facility, which the Board of Correction found last month was in violation of the minimum standards for treatment of people held in City jails. The West Facility, which historically has housed inmates with contagious diseases, has become the Department’s rogue substitute for punitive segregation, where people with a wide variety of treatment needs are held in illegal isolated confinement. While we agree with the Monitor that the small number of people held at West means that statistics may not tell the whole story, it cannot be ignored that the highest rate of use of force is occurring in the very same facility whose conditions have most recently been found to violate the law. We believe it is imperative for the Department to explain the use of force incidents that are occurring in this too often overlooked facility.