New York reaches deal on sweeping reforms of notorious Rikers Island jail

The city of New York and federal prosecutors announced a deal on Monday promising sweeping reforms at the notorious Rikers Island jail.
The city of New York and federal prosecutors announced a deal on Monday promising sweeping reforms at the notorious Rikers Island jail. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (AFP) - The city of New York and federal prosecutors announced a deal on Monday promising sweeping reforms to end decades of violence against inmates, including teenagers, at the notorious Rikers Island jail.

The agreement is the result of lengthy negotiations after a federal investigation uncovered a "pervasive and deep-seated culture of violence" at what is one of the largest municipal jails in the US.

Among the specific reforms listed in the 67-page agreement are body cameras to be worn by guards and the installation of nearly 8,000 new surveillance cameras by July 2017.

Earlier this month, a current and two former corrections officers at Rikers Island were charged over the beating to death in 2012 of an inmate with kidney disease.

Days earlier, a 22-year-old New Yorker, Kalief Browder, held for nearly three years as a teenager without trial and who later inspired reform efforts, committed suicide.

"Today, we have reached a groundbreaking agreement in principle with city officials, subject to ultimate approval by the court," said US Attorney for Manhattan Preet Bharara.

The agreement appoints a federal monitor to oversee the jail in an overhaul that officials hope will set a benchmark for prison reform throughout the United States.

The US prison population has quadrupled since 1980 to more than two million people, according to Amnesty International.

The country accounts for five per cent of the world's population but is responsible for nearly 22 per cent of the world's prison population, the rights group said.

The agreement says the reforms are "intended to dismantle the decades-long culture of violence."

Officers will be prohibited from using certain categories of force, and strict penalties, including dismissal, will be introduced for those engaged in "excessive or unnecessary" force, it said.

Changes will be made to the way incidents are reported in order to make the process quicker and more transparent, and guards will be allowed to report on each other anonymously.

Recruitment practices will also be tightened, and background checks made to screen for possible gang affiliations and relationships with current inmates.

The deal also promised enhanced screening of supervisors and staff in special areas, such as in the mental health unit, as well as sweeping improvements to current training programs.

The city has already undertaken reforms on its own initiative on the treatment of teenage inmates.

Monday's deal said special care would be taken of the youngest inmates and prohibited solitary confinement for those under 18 and 18-year-olds suffering from serious mental illness.

Evening, weekend and summer activities would be increased "to minimise idleness and the potential for inmate-on-inmate violence."

The agreement also called for an alternative site - not on Rikers Island - to be found for inmates aged under 18 and more readily accessible by public transport to make family visits easier.