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US says NYC jails extremely violent, unsafe for teenage inmates and that reforms are needed

FILE - In this July 31, 2014 file photo, a Rikers Island juvenile detention facility officer stands watch during a visit to the jail by Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons and entertainer L.L. Cool J in New York. The city’s juvenile jails are extremely violent and unsafe, the result of a deeply ingrained culture of violence in which guards routinely violate constitutional rights of teenage inmates and subject them to “rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force,” federal prosecutors said in a scathing report released Monday, Aug. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File)

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FILE - In this July 31, 2014 file photo, a Rikers Island juvenile detention facility officer stands watch during a visit to the jail by Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons and entertainer L.L. Cool J in New York. The city’s juvenile jails are extremely violent and unsafe, the result of a deeply ingrained culture of violence in which guards routinely violate constitutional rights of teenage inmates and subject them to “rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force,” federal prosecutors said in a scathing report released Monday, Aug. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File)

NEW YORK, N.Y. - New York City's juvenile jails are extremely violent and unsafe, the result of a culture of violence in which guards routinely violate constitutional rights of teenage inmates and subject them to "rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force," the federal government said in a report released Monday.

The report is the result of a 2 1/2-year Justice Department investigation into violence at three Rikers Island juvenile jail facilities for 16- to 18-year-olds, part of the nation's second-largest jail system. It recommends major reforms to almost every aspect of how young offenders are treated.

It identified problems that occurred between 2011 and 2013 that also likely hold true for adult inmates, including poor staff training, inadequate investigations, an ineffective management structure and the overuse of solitary confinement, particularly for mentally ill inmates.

"It is a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort; where verbal insults are repaid with physical injuries; where beatings are routine while accountability is rare; and where a culture of violence endures even while a code of silence prevails," said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara at a news conference.

In past cases investigated by the Justice Department's civil rights division, federal authorities work with local officials to reform the jails and reserve the right to sue if they feel reforms are not being done.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to reform the jail system, with an average of 11,500 inmates held at any time. In March, he appointed Joseph Ponte, a longtime corrections official with a reputation as a reformer.

Prosecutors acknowledged that de Blasio and Ponte inherited many of the problems, which have been pervasive for years.

Bharara said Monday he was optimistic that the city would move promptly toward implementing the more than 70 suggested reforms listed in the Rikers report. A spokeswoman for de Blasio didn't immediately return a request for comment.

The investigators found particular problems in the main jail that houses young inmates, where new correction officers are assigned to "one of the most combustible environments at Rikers, ill-equipped to cope with adolescents who are often belligerent and suffer from a wide range of mental illnesses and behavioural disorders," assistant U.S. attorneys Jeffrey Powell and Emily Daughtry wrote.

The consultant used by the federal prosecutors said that in reviewing hundreds of correctional systems, he had never seen such a high rate of punches to the head, such a high use-of-force rate and such pervasive inmate-on-inmate violence.

In one August 2013 case, four unidentified inmates suffered broken noses, perforated eardrums, head trauma and facial injuries during a "brutal use of force" involving multiple guards in a trailer where school classes are held — and again later when they were handcuffed in a clinic holding area.

There is no video of the encounter and, nearly a year after it occurred, corrections investigative reports were not completed, the federal government lawyers noted.

In a statement, Ponte said he was committed to "radically" improving security for adolescent inmates, and had already ordered the speedy installation of video cameras and recruited and trained more experienced guards.

Norman Seabrook, president of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, said in a short statement that he recommended some of the reforms detailed in the federal report, but he stressed that officers must use whatever force is necessary when defending against an inmate assault.

Last fiscal year, there were 489 adolescent inmates, down from 682 in fiscal year 2013, when the average jail stint for 16- to 18-year-olds was 76 days. More than half had a mental health diagnosis. When they break jailhouse rules, such as refusing to obey orders or being verbally assaultive, they are sent to punitive segregation, a 23-hour lock-in essentially the same as solitary confinement.

In one 21-month period, an average of 150 inmates received such punishment each month, resulting in a total of 143,823 days in solitary.

___

Associated Press reporter Eric Tucker in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

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