The role of journalism in exposing a culture of violence at Rikers Island

The role of journalism in exposing a culture of violence at Rikers Island

››› ››› DINA RADTKE & NINA MAST

After years of investigations into a culture of violence, abuse, and neglect for human life at Rikers Island prison complex, correction officials’ attempts to cover it up, and the failures of New York City’s elected officials to implement real reforms, Rikers prison is set to be closed in the next 10 years. Here, we document some of the crucial investigative journalism and storytelling by The Village Voice, The New Yorker, and The New York Times that helped expose the extent of the horrors at one of the worst prisons in America.


Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Mayor de Blasio announced plan to close jail on Rikers Island

Mayor de Blasio pledged to close jail complex on Rikers Island within 10 years​. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on March 31 a pledge to close the jail complex on Rikers Island. According to The New York Times, the decision came “amid public pressure on the issue from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and at a time when [de Blasio] has been hounded by prison reform advocates.” In February 2016, the Times reported that New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito “vowed” to take on criminal justice reforms that could lead to closing Rikers. During a speech on the issue, she mentioned Kalief Browder, a teenager who was held in the jail for three years without a trial before being released and later killing himself. [The New York Times, 3/31/17, 2/11/16]

This is the landmark journalism that brought public attention to Rikers Island

Dayanita Ramesh and Miles Le / Media Matters

The Village Voice uncovered a system of organized violence and corruption plaguing Rikers

The Village Voice began investigating Rikers’ culture of violence as early as 2007, after which it reported on a kind of guard-supervised “fight club” and, later, a rogue “violence-reduction” task force that attempted to cover it up. As a result of investigations into the systemic violence, as reported on by the Voice, several officers were either transferred or indicted for their actions. The Voice’s Graham Rayman also won an award for his investigative journalism on the topic.

After an inmate gang killed an 18-year-old prisoner, the Correction Department launched a major investigation into inmate violence. The murder of 18-year-old Rikers inmate Christopher Robinson by an inmate gang in October 2008 drew “more public attention than any other jail homicide in recent memory,” according to The Village Voice. The Voice reported on records showing that in the first 10 months of 2008, 39 inmates at Rikers had “suffered serious facial injuries.” Out of those, 28 were teenagers and “twenty of those cases directly involved gang inmates attempting to control or extort other inmates.” In April 2009, the Voice reported that, in response, the New York Department of Correction had launched a major investigation, interviewing hundreds of young inmates. As a result, three correction officers were indicted for having organized “a team” of inmates “who carried out punishment beatings of other inmates,” and two were later sentenced to short jail terms. [The Village Voice, 4/15/09, 5/9/12]

The Voice reported that Rikers guards were systematically “using inmates to enforce discipline” with violence against other inmates. In 2007, the Voice obtained the testimony of a former correction officer, Roger Cullen, who gave a sworn deposition explaining that correction officers “deputized” inmates in order to enforce rules and “control” other inmates. Another Voice article in 2008 recounted a situation in which one inmate was put in charge of 50 other inmates; those who defied the head inmate were brutally assaulted. In 2012, the magazine reported that although three officers had been indicted, and despite assurances from the Correction Department that this Rikers “fight club” had been stopped, “the practice [was] very much still in place.” Additionally, the Voice reported that it had “obtained more than 200 reports that detail fight after fight over the past two years, the vast majority of them gang related.” After the magazine contacted the department for a comment, Deputy Chief Carmine LaBruzzo “ordered an effort to figure out who was speaking to the media.” [The Village Voice, 7/3/07, 4/8/08, 5/9/12]

Informant and former correction officer Roger Cullen cited the Voice in a lawsuit against New York City. The Voice found that correction officer Roger Cullen had notified the Department of Correction’s Investigation Division about the so-called “fight club” in September 2003, but “no one investigated those allegations for more than a year, and by then Cullen had been fired.” According to the Voice, Cullen cited the magazine’s reporting in a lawsuit he filed against New York City for wrongful termination. [The Village Voice, 7/3/07, 9/18/074/8/08]

The Voice exposed a “rogue” “violence reduction” unit that turned a blind eye to, or covered up, violence in the jail. In August 2012, the Voice reported that a “shadowy jail ‘violence reduction’ unit” created by LaBruzzo was “under investigation for falsifying reports, beating inmates, and violating department regulations.” Correction Department sources told the magazine that officers who tracked inmate fights were ordered to stop reporting certain types of violence; as a result, fights were merely “chalked up to ‘horseplay’ or were simply unreported.” [The Village Voice, 8/8/12]

Reporting by the Voice aided an investigation that resulted in several officers involved in the rogue "violence reduction task force" being transferred. In response to reports of controversy surrounding the rogue “violence reduction task force,” punitive beatings, and other allegations, the city’s Department of Investigation launched a probe, interviewing top-ranking correction officials including LaBruzzo, his top aide, Gerald Vaughn, and a half-dozen others, and confiscating reports on inmate violence. Throughout the investigation, the Voice uncovered additional details on the “rogue” unit through interviews with correction sources and reviews of internal documents. As a result of the probe’s findings, a group of correction captains had to be transferred to another unit. [The Village Voice, 8/8/12]

A Voice journalist earned an award for his reporting on violence at Rikers. Graham Rayman, who authored two major investigative pieces on Rikers for the Voice on violence and the attempt to cover it up, was awarded a first place investigative reporting accolade from the Association Of Alternative Newsmedia. [Association of Alternative Newsmedia, 7/13/13]

NY Times helped spark legal action with reports of abuse against Rikers inmates with mental illness, attempt to distort data to cover up violence, and one egregious tale of violence

In 2014, The New York Times reported on a “secret internal study” on violence against inmates, particularly mentally ill inmates, by Rikers guards. That same year, the Times exposed another confidential report revealing that the Correction Department had distorted data to claim that violence had declined at the facility when, in reality, violence had continued unabated. Journalists at the Times also reported extensively on the brutal beating of an inmate who eventually won a rare court victory against the responsible correction officers. After the Times reported on the continued violence and lack of reforms to address it, then-U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara threatened to sue the city, citing the Times.

NY Times exposed reports of brutality against mentally ill inmates at Rikers that “have seldom reached the outside world.” The New York Times investigated “a secret internal study” completed in 2014 by New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, finding “over an 11-month period last year, 129 inmates suffered ‘serious injuries’ — ones beyond the capacity of doctors at the jail’s clinics to treat — in altercations with correction department staff members.” Additionally, the Times reported that “77 percent of the seriously injured inmates had received a mental illness diagnosis.” According to the Times, “none of the officers involved in the 129 cases have been prosecuted at this point, according to information from the Bronx district attorney’s office. None have been brought up on formal administrative charges in connection to the cases so far either.” From the July 14, 2014, report:

Brutal attacks by correction officers on inmates — particularly those with mental health issues — are common occurrences inside Rikers, the country’s second-largest jail, a four-month investigation by The New York Times found.

Reports of such abuses have seldom reached the outside world, even as alarm has grown this year over conditions at the sprawling jail complex. A dearth of whistle-blowers, coupled with the reluctance of the city’s Department of Correction to acknowledge the problem and the fact that guards are rarely punished, has kept the full extent of the violence hidden from public view.

But The Times uncovered details on scores of assaults through interviews with current and former inmates, correction officers and mental health clinicians at the jail, and by reviewing hundreds of pages of legal, investigative and jail records. Among the documents obtained by The Times was a secret internal study completed this year by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which handles medical care at Rikers, on violence by officers. 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.

The study, which the health department refused to release under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, found that over an 11-month period last year, 129 inmates suffered “serious injuries” — ones beyond the capacity of doctors at the jail’s clinics to treat — in altercations with correction department staff members.

The report cataloged in exacting detail the severity of injuries suffered by inmates: fractures, wounds requiring stitches, head injuries and the like. But it also explored who the victims were. Most significantly, 77 percent of the seriously injured inmates had received a mental illness diagnosis.

[...]

What emerges is a damning portrait of guards on Rikers Island, who are poorly equipped to deal with mental illness and instead repeatedly respond with overwhelming force to even minor provocations.

The report notes that health department staff members interviewed 80 of the 129 inmates after their altercations with correction officers. In 80 percent of the cases, inmates reported being beaten after they were handcuffed.

The study also contained hints of efforts to cover up the assaults. More than half of the inmates reported facing “interference or intimidation” from correction officers while seeking treatment after an altercation.

In five of the 129 cases, the beatings followed suicide attempts.

[...]

Even so, none of the officers involved in the 129 cases have been prosecuted at this point, according to information from the Bronx district attorney’s office. None have been brought up on formal administrative charges in connection to the cases so far either, though that process can sometimes be lengthy, and the Correction Department does not comment on pending investigations. [The New York Times, 7/14/14]

NY Times obtained a confidential report that contradicted a Correction Department study falsely claiming that violence had decreased at Rikers. In 2014, The New York Times obtained a confidential report that found that a 2011 Correction Department report claiming that inmate fights had fallen by two-thirds was distorted, writing, “Violence wasn’t down. The data was wrong.” The Times learned from the report that “hundreds of inmate fights had been omitted from departmental statistics,” and added that the distortion “underscores the pervasive dysfunction of the city’s Correction Department.” [The New York Times, 9/21/14]

U.S. attorney threatened to sue the city, citing the Times. The day after the Times investigation was published, Preet Bharara, then-U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said that “his office stood ready to file a civil rights lawsuit against the city to force changes.” Additionally, Bharara cited the Times report to suggest that, as the paper summarized, “New York officials were not moving quickly enough to make reforms at Rikers.” Bharara would later “join in an existing class-action lawsuit over brutality at Rikers, Nunez v. City of New York.” [The New York Times, 9/22/14, 12/18/14]

After four years of investigating, litigation, and relentless reporting, “justice got served” to Jahmal Lightfoot. One day in July 2012, unarmed inmate Jahmal Lightfoot was tackled to the ground and kicked repeatedly by five correction officers, while three others watched, until both his eye sockets were fractured and his nose was broken. Over the next four years, the Times’ Winnie Hu and Kate Pastor, alongside The Village Voice (which linked Lightfoot’s beating to the previously described “shadow task force”), detailed Lightfoot’s case, reporting thoroughly on not just his beating, but also an attempted cover-up and efforts to smear him, and contextualized Lightfoot’s experience as part of a larger culture of violence and abuse that permeated Rikers. The 2016 verdict, in which eight correction officers were sentenced, was particularly notable because it is rare to successfully prosecute guards for misconduct and abuse, according to a lawyer who has represented Rikers inmates. It was also seen as a test for the Bronx’s newest district attorney, Darcel D. Clark, who made prosecuting Rikers crimes a priority. [The New York Times, 3/28/16, 5/26/16, 6/8/16; The Village Voice, 8/8/12, 6/26/13; Bronx District Attorney’s Office, 9/16/16]

New Yorker writer Jennifer Gonnerman's Kalief Browder exposé inspired a national conversation about solitary confinement at Rikers

New Yorker writer Jennifer Gonnerman’s profile of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old who spent three years at Rikers despite never having been convicted of a crime, was referenced by government officials, drew praise from other news organizations, and helped spark a national conversation about solitary confinement at Rikers. It also eventually led New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to announce a plan to dedicate a separate jail for young inmates.

Gonnerman uncovered and reported details about Browder’s experience in detention. Kalief Browder spent three years awaiting trial in a Rikers jail -- nearly two of them in solitary confinement -- for the crime of allegedly stealing a backpack when he was 16. Based on internal documents and a series of interviews with Browder, who had been recently released, New Yorker writer Jennifer Gonnerman detailed the unspeakable violence and neglect that he and and others faced at Rikers. [The New Yorker, 10/6/14]

Vice reported that Gonnerman's piece "made the horror of Rikers Island impossible to ignore." Vice News interviewed Gonnerman about Browder’s story and Rikers, noting that her “fantastic story is the first magazine piece ever to be a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and in addition to elevating the author to new heights career-wise, it seems to be making a difference in the real world, too.” In the interview, Gonnerman noted that The New York Times’ reporting “woke people up to some of the injustices” and helped draw attention to the issues her story addressed. [Vice News, 5/12/15]

Justice Anthony Kennedy cited Gonnerman’s reporting in a Supreme Court case opinion as an example of “expert scholarship.” In his opinion on a Supreme Court case related to constitutional violations in adjudication and the death penalty, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy cited Gonnerman’s reporting on Browder as an example of “expert scholarship” that “no doubt will aid in the consideration of the many issues solitary confinement presents.” [Supreme Court Of The United States, 6/18/15]

After Browder’s death, then-President Obama called for an end to solitary confinement. After Browder died by suicide less than two years after his release, then-President Barack Obama penned a Washington Post op-ed in which he called for an end to the use of solitary confinement in prisons. [The Washington Post, 1/25/16]

Mayor de Blasio announced plan to move 16- and 17-year-olds from Rikers. The New York Times reported that the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, under pressure because of a 2015 settlement with the Department of Justice and prisoners’ rights advocates, “has developed a plan to move 16- and 17-year-olds [from Rikers] to a dedicated jail for youths in the Bronx.” The report credited The New Yorker, writing, “Increased attention was focused on the plight of younger teenagers at Rikers in 2014 after The New Yorker published an article about Kalief Browder, who was sent there at 16, accused of stealing a backpack.” [The New York Times, 7/20/16]

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