Rikers Island: A History of Violence and Negligence

By: Shulman & Hill

Rikers Island has a long and troubled history of harsh conditions and dangerous disorder. In recent years, the prison complex saw a concerning rise in deaths and injuries, as well as an uptick in inmate mistreatment of all kinds. Escalating violence and lack of care during medical emergencies has contributed to systemic abuse and negligence at the prison complex.

Mistreatment and Neglect at Rikers Island

Ever since the prison’s opening in 1932, it has faced scrutiny for its shocking brutality and the negligence of correctional officers and caretakers. In the 1970s and 1980s, the prison was under fire for overcrowding, violence, and cruelty toward younger prisoners. Today, chronic neglect and abuse of inmates are two of the main complaints, as a rise in inmate suicides highlight unnecessarily harsh conditions.

Recent reports show that violence at Rikers Island has risen to an all-time high, even as city officials face the possibility of a federal takeover or plans to close the institution altogether. Even as the population at Rikers Island fell to historic lows in recent years, the average amount of times that prison guards used force each month rose by 54 percent, from a reported 390 times to nearly 600. When fluctuations in jail population are accounted for, this means that the amount of times force was used per inmate more than doubled over the course of a four-year period.

Furthermore, escalating jailhouse violence has not been restricted to just guards and inmates. Fights, stabbings, slashings, and assaults, between gangs, individuals, and correctional officers at the facility was at an all-time high in 2021, making it the most violent year on record according to a Nunez Independent Monitor report.

Attempts to Address Escalating Violence at Rikers

A New York State judge recently held the Correction Department at Rikers Island in contempt of court for its failure to provide detainees with a reasonable level of medical care. For instance, in the tragic case of Dashawn Carter, mental health officials housed Mr. Carter in the general population area of the prison despite a prior history of being held on suicide watch. Mr. Carter, who had just been transferred to Rikers from a five-month stint in a psychiatric hospital, was found dead in his cell with a sheet tied around his neck. He was being held at Rikers Island while awaiting trial on robbery charges.

Dashawn Carter was a beloved son, brother, uncle, and friend who passed away at just 25 years old. He should not be defined by his time awaiting trial, nor by the actions of prison officials who failed to provide the bare minimum standard of care. Mr. Carter was the fourth person to die on Rikers Island this year alone. His family is represented by Shulman & Hill’s Civil Rights Partner Cary London and by attorney David Kline. This wrongful death suit is an effort not only to bring some financial assistance to the family, but also to shine a light on the systemic neglect that mistreats incarcerated New Yorkers.

Wrongful Incarceration Under Violent Circumstances

Anyone can become incarcerated at any point when evidence is mishandled. The Civil Rights team at Shulman & Hill recently represented two clients, Barry Hall and Pharaoh Ferguson, who were sent to Rikers Island and spent three years in prison serving time for a murder they did not commit. When geolocation data on their cellphones showed that they were not present for the 2018 murder for which they were being held, they were eventually freed. Civil Rights Partner Cary London is representing the two clients in a wrongful arrest and imprisonment case against the NYPD.

The three years that were lost at Rikers Island will not be easily forgotten nor forgiven, especially with the atrocities on display on a daily basis in the jail. If you or a loved one have been incarcerated and were harmed, the Civil Rights Division of Shulman & Hill may be able to help. There are certain standards of care that prisons are required to maintain for inmates. Being incarcerated does not mean the forfeiture of every civil right that we maintain as Americans.

Incarceration should be an opportunity for reflection and rehabilitation, so as to make our whole society safer. Hardening those who have been accused of crimes with repeated exposure to inhumane circumstances leaves no one better off. And those who have been accused still deserve basic human consideration. Cases such as those of Dashawn Carter, Mary Yehudah who passed away from an apparent overdose on Rikers while waiting to enter a drug-treatment program; Herman Diaz, who choked to death on an orange when the officer on duty nearby refused to help him; or Khalief Browder, who committed suicide after three years spent at Rikers without ever being charged of a crime, have become all too common. Rikers Island has become more and more dangerous not only from interpersonal violence, but also from structural neglect from those who are meant to provide order, rehabilitative tools, and care.

Speak to a Civil Rights Attorney

Those who have been incarcerated have certain rights. Having a family member be incarcerated is difficult enough without worrying about what kind of cruelty or neglect they may be subjected to. While Rikers Island is particularly notorious, there is help available. The Civil Rights Division at Shulman & Hill has taken on several cases to help shed light on the atrocities of Rikers Island, bring financial assistance to families, and hold accountable those who abuse, neglect, or mistreat those under their stewardship.

If you have a family member who has been incarcerated and injured, or even passed away due to circumstances beyond their control, speak to a civil rights attorney at Shulman & Hill today. Families and individuals may be able to pursue a lawsuit against the jail if it failed to maintain a safe environment, and if you or a loved one were harmed or died as a result. Our online contact form is a confidential platform to express maltreatment that you or a loved one experienced while being held at a correctional facility in New York, or our legal offices are reachable by telephone. Reach out to our firm today.

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