The Terror Facing Youth at Rikers Island

August 9, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


Aerial photo of the huge Rikers Island prison complex, New York City. Photo: U.S. Geological Survey

Imagine you are 16 years old. You get into some trouble—maybe you get arrested for something you did or maybe you just got stopped and frisked, got caught with a joint—or some cop just said you did something. You are handcuffed, taken to jail, charged as an adult (in New York, all youth over the age of 16 are charged as adults) and hauled before a judge who sets bond far higher than your family can pay.

Now you are put on a ferry and taken to Rikers Island, a vast prison complex in New York City, to await trial.  

Your world is now controlled by brutal guards who can do pretty much whatever they want – punch you in the head, break your nose, fracture your skull, knock you out, and lock you in solitary confinement for months—with very little chance of punishment, and who openly tell you that if you dare to complain, you will get even worse.

Most likely you will be here for months and you will be brutalized.


Rikers is a hell on earth where some of the worst torments are reserved for its youngest inmates, who are brutalized at an even higher rate than adults. Fourteen thousand people are held on Rikers, the great majority awaiting trial because they could not afford bond.

On August 4, the U.S. attorney for Manhattan released a 79-page report on the “deep-seated culture of violence” at Rikers, resulting in a “staggering” number of injuries. The report also documented “excessive” use of solitary confinement of youth, especially youth with mental illness. On average, 15-25 percent of imprisoned youth are in solitary confinement, as many as 70 percent of them mentally ill, for anywhere from 60 to 200 days.

The report says that on a single day (October 30, 2012) over 43 percent of the 705 adolescent males at Rikers had been subjected to violence by staff on at least one occasion during their time there.  

This is serious violence—in one year, there were a total of 239 head injuries, 96 suspected fractures, and 459 injuries requiring emergency medical service. (Some of these totals are from inmate fights, which past reports have brought out is often incited and organized by the guards.)

The authorities try to justify this brutality by claiming inmates attacked them, but the report notes that over and over when guards claim to have been “punched in the face,” they show no sign of injury, while the inmate is lying in his own blood, spitting out teeth or nursing broken bones.

The report notes that the guards routinely shout “stop resisting” as they beat people who are not resisting, who are handcuffed, lying on the ground, or even blacked out. It describes a video of a captain walking towards such a beating shouting “stop resisting” before she can even see what is going on.

Brutal Intimidation

What actually provokes these assaults is often “disobedience,” “cursing” or “disrespect” – in other words prisoners refusing to bow and scrape before their tormentors (or even just normal teenage behavior). The report details on a number of typical incidents:

* “Inmate C” did not follow an officer’s orders to stop doing pushups; the officer threatened to “slap the shit out of him.” Later the officer punched “Inmate C ”15 times in the head, breaking his nose, while another guard kicked him while he lay bleeding on the floor.

* After “Inmate D” finished a visit with from his girlfriend a guard demanded he strip, squat and cough. He complained, but did it. Then he “made a smart remark”; “multiple officers proceeded to repeatedly punch and kick him in the chest, face and head.” He was ordered to strip again and additional officers joined in the kicking and punching.… [T]he beating continued until one officer stated that he thought “Inmate D was dead. He was then handcuffed and kicked in the face a few more times.” As a result of all this, his skull was fractured and he sustained multiple lacerations requiring stitches.

Over 50 percent of youth inmates at Rikers have been diagnosed with moderate or severe mental illness, and they come in for special abuse. In December 2012, two mentally ill patients were “extracted from their cells for failure to comply with search procedures” and for throwing urine at guards. They were taken to the clinic in restraints, where a Captain and multiple officers took turns punching the inmates in the face and body… One clinician reported that she observed one inmate being punched in the head while handcuffed to a gurney for what she believed to be five minutes.” Another saw guards “striking the other inmate with closed fists while he screamed for them to stop hurting them.” The beatings were so severe that there was blood on the walls and staff members were “sick to their stomachs.” One inmate was still spitting up blood a month after this incident.

Civilian medical and educational staff at Rikers are repeatedly warned by guards not to look when they are carrying out these beatings or they will suffer retaliation. After one beating in the clinic, a Captain told staff that “it was good that clinical staff were present ‘so that they could witness and corroborate the inmates banging their own heads into the wall.’” One day after the U.S. attorney’s report was released, the district attorney for the Bronx (the borough which has jurisdiction over Rikers) announced he would not prosecute the guards involved in this clinic beating, even though a number of clinic staff had come forward as witnesses.

The U.S. attorneys report is a damning exposure of a completely illegitimate system that has no future for millions and millions of Black and Latino youth in this country—except a life of unemployment, poverty, police brutality and mass incarceration.

Volunteers Needed... for and Revolution

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.