Abuses at Rikers Island: Bandaids Won’t Work

August 8, 2014

An August 4, 2014 article in The New York Times details the horrific abuses of youth by staff at the adult jails where youth under 18 are held pending trial in adult criminal court—abuses confirmed in a lengthy federal investigation led by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan.

The 79-page report of the federal inquiry highlights numerous examples of staff beating youth, causing broken bones and other serious injuries,  as well as an over-reliance on solitary confinement at "alarming" rates and for "excessive" periods.

With virtually no accountability for staff actions, the report concludes that the conduct of staff at Rikers violates the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates. "For adolescent inmates, Rikers Island is broken," Bharara  said at Monday's press conference announcing the report findings.

Nevertheless, after reviewing the report and the 13  pages of recommendations for addressing the constitutional violations of youth at Rikers, it is difficult to imagine how those recommendations can be implemented by New York alone to safely house youth.

The fact is, no amount of bandaids can make adult jails safe for youth. The  practice of confining youth in adult jails should be banned nationwide, and the report should be seen as a call for federal as well as state  action.  

Here's why: The comprehensive report on youth in adult jails, "Jailing Juveniles," released by the Campaign for Youth Justice, documents  research showing that youth are most at risk of physical abuse and sexual assault in adult jails and experience the highest suicide rates of all inmates.

When compared to youth in juvenile detention, youth are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult jail. That's why the professional associations of justice system stakeholders, including jail administrators, sheriffs, detention heads and county officials, have long-standing policy positions that recommend against placing youth in adult jails.

The American Jail Association (AJA) whose membership includes jail administrators and sheriffs is "opposed in concept to housing juveniles in any jail." The National Partnership for Juvenile Services (NPJS), which represents juvenile detention administrators, policy declares:  "It is the position of NPJS that waived or transferred juveniles accused of committing a crime and requiring temporary holding in a secure setting be held in juvenile detention."

The National Association of Counties (NACO) says that "counties are urged to remove juveniles from correctional facilities which detain accused or adjudicated adults."

National experts agree. In its most recent comprehensive report, "Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach," the National Academies of Sciences recommended that the core protections in the JJDPA should be strengthened through re-authorizing legislation that, "expands the protections to all youth under age 18 in pretrial detention, whether charged in juvenile or adult courts."

The U.S. Attorney General's Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence made similar recommendations. 

After an exhaustive year-long examination on best practices and approaches to reducing childrens' exposure to violence, the task force recommended, "We should stop treating juvenile offenders as if they were adults, prosecuting them in adult courts, incarcerating them as adults, and sentencing them to harsh punishments that ignore their capacity to grow."

And so does the public.

The most recent national poll, conducted by GBA Strategies shows that the public rejects placement of youth in adult jails. The survey "reveals that Americans are squarely on the side of reforming our youth justice system—with a greater focus on rigorous rehabilitation over incarceration, and against placing youth in adult jails and prisons."

Congress must act now to protect youth at Rikers Island and throughout the country from the dangers of adult jails. 

It  should close the loophole in the federal Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) that allows youth charged in adult criminal court to be placed in adult jails. While the original intent of the federal law was to remove youth from adult jails altogether, the law only protects children under juvenile court jurisdiction.

That is, youth charged in adult criminal court, such as the youth at Rikers, are not protected by the JJDPA.

The federal JJDPA turns 40  next month. That should serve as a timely  reminder to our nation's policymakers of the urgent need to protect children in the justice system.

To ensure that all children are protected no matter what court (juvenile or criminal) they are under, Congress must update the JJDPA now for the youth at Rikers Island and throughout the country who are daily exposed to abuse in adult jails.

Liz Ryan is a campaign strategist, youth justice policy expert, and civil and human rights  advocate.  She is the Founder of the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ), an organization working to end the practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating youth in the adult criminal justice system. Follow Liz on Twitter @LizRyanYJ

This article originally appeared on the August 7, 2014 edition of The Crime Report. It is reprinted here with permission.

This post is part of the JJDPA Matters blog, a project of the Act4JJ Campaign with help from SparkAction. jjdpa matters icon

The JJDPA, the nation's landmark juvenile justice law, turns 40 this September. Each month leading up to this anniversary, Act4JJ member organizations and allies will post blogs on issues related to the JJDPA.  To learn more and take action in support of JJDPA, visit the Act4JJ JJDPA Matters Action Center, powered by SparkAction.

Liz Ryan