Inmate abuse in correctional facilities needs to be properly addressed

Many people have undoubtedly been shocked by recent reports in the New York Times as to conditions at the correctional facility on Rikers Island. Federal investigators have uncovered widespread civil rights violations involving the handling of incarcerated adolescents at Rikers Island. Among the federal findings were: (1) excessive use of force by correction officers; (2) the overuse of solitary confinement; and (3) no accountability for assaults perpetrated upon youthful inmates by guards.

To those familiar with American correctional facilities, the problems under scrutiny at Rikers Island are not surprising. Prison guards sometimes overreact with grossly excessive force to perceived threats. Human Rights Watch notes that inmates have been beaten by guards with fists and batons, kicked, choked and even slammed face first onto concrete floors. Inmates have suffered severe personal injuries from attacks by guards. Some inmates have died from inhumane treatment.

In addition, there is inmate-on-inmate violence which is often unchecked by correctional officers and sometimes actually encouraged. The Truthout website notes that instances exist where prisoner violence is "directed by officers, who utilize some prisoners to control others," sometimes with "horrific results."

Correctional officers often fail to report the use of force and falsify reports to cover-up wanton acts of violence. In some instances, officers will falsely assert that their excessive use of force was in self-defense. Both men and women prisoners have been sexually abused by correctional officers or other inmates. ABC News reports that half of sexual abuse claims in American prisons involve guards.

The Huffington Post observes that prisoners are forgotten people who, to most of us, are out of sight and out of mind once locked away. In reality, inmates are among society's most vulnerable populations. Like children, they are totally dependent on others for their basic needs ranging from food to medical care. However, unlike children who depend on a loving parent to provide their needs, inmates depend on prison guards.

It is perhaps too much to expect that prison guards will act in a loving and kindly manner toward inmates. However, it is to be expected that prison guards act in a professional, ethical and humane manner towards those incarcerated. Unfortunately, these expectations are often not met.

Deterring violence

There is no easy solution to the problem of violence perpetrated upon inmates by prison guards or other inmates. The Urban Institute believes that there are steps that could be taken to make correctional facilities less violent. First, better supervision of inmates by correctional guards could deter acts of inmate-on-inmate violence. Having guards make rounds more frequently has been shown to deter inmate assaults on each other. Moreover, routine contact between guards and inmates appears to help ratchet down the amount of force that guards use in response to threatened incidents.

Second, surveillance cameras can operate as a deterrent to violent acts perpetrated by both correctional officers and other inmates. Video footage has the added benefit of recording evidence for incident investigations. Third, correctional officers can be better trained in crisis intervention so they can resolve intense situations calmly and nonviolently. Fourth, steps to reduce inmate stress and frustration-such as providing more structured activities-will result in cutting down on confrontations both among inmates and between guards and inmates.

Seeking legal help

If you or a loved one has suffered physical injury or indignity due to harassment or violence while incarcerated, you should contact a New York attorney experienced in handling civil rights cases as soon as possible.