Rough numbers open window into Rikers violence

It’s rare for correction officers and advocates for inmates to agree on anything. But when it comes to rising violence in the city’s jails, they both contend that the New York City Department of Correction is greatly understating the level of violence in the agency’s facilities.

Documents obtained by The New York World showing medical care administered at Rikers Island, the city’s main jail complex, suggest that a wide disparity may indeed exist between the volume of injuries doctors treat and official data released by the city.

The medical log reveals some gruesome injuries among inmates, such as one who went to the hospital in 2011 with an amputated ear and a human bite. The missing ear represents just one of nearly 5,900 incidents in which inmates sustained traumatic injuries – physical injuries that are not self-inflicted, or the result of a mental illness or a pre-existing medical condition – recorded in the Rikers Island injury log between July 2010 and June 2012.

The log is compiled by the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which provides health services in the city’s jail system. The jails themselves are run by the City of New York Department of Correction.


Click to see the Rikers injury log, tracking incidents from July 2010 to June 2012

About 1,000 of the logged incidents resulted in an inmate being sent to the hospital, including one prisoner who suffered puncture wounds on the neck, another who was stabbed in the chest, and one with a detached retina. The list goes on and on. More than 660 of the hospital visits took place in fiscal year 2012, which began in July 2011.

Yet, many of the traumatic injuries resulting in hospitalizations do not show up in statistics shared publicly by the Department of Correction (DOC), which tally fewer than 400 serious inmate injuries resulting from violence, accidents or other causes for fiscal year 2012.

Photo: U.S. Geological Survey

Photo: U.S. Geological Survey

The Mayor’s Management Report, an annual compendium of city agency performance, tracks serious injuries resulting from reported inmate-on-inmate violence, not just in the 10 jails on Rikers Island but also four borough houses of detention, five court pens and two prison hospital wards across the city. In the report, the department defines a “serious injury” as one “requiring medical treatment beyond the prescription of over-the-counter analgesics.”

In fiscal year 2012, the Mayor’s Management Report noted a rate of serious injuries resulting from reported inmate-on-inmate violence of 1.3 per thousand inmates. With an average daily population of 12,287, that added up to to more than 190 injuries. The department confirms that inmates suffered 196 such injuries in fiscal year 2012.

The department also reports that incidents in which Department of Correction staff used force against inmates accounted for an additional 147 serious injuries that year, either to inmates or to correction officers.

Asked why the Mayor’s Management Report statistics, which record only reported injuries that are the result of violence, varied from the information detailed in the injury log, department spokesperson Eldin Villafane wrote in an email that “serious injuries to inmates most often occur as a result of accidents, sports injuries, and work-related injuries.” The department told The New York World that 38 serious injuries resulted from accidents in fiscal year 2012.

The serious injury statistics in the Mayor’s Management Report, combined with the accident figures reported by the Department of Correction, total 381 for fiscal year 2012. That doesn’t come close to the more than 660 times the log shows Rikers inmates were sent to the hospital during that same period in connection with traumatic injuries, or the 3,548 total traumatic injuries logged for that year by the health department.

Many injuries that inmates sustained did not result in a hospital visit, but may have required more medical attention than basic first aid and over-the-counter medication – the threshold the Department of Correction uses to define a “serious injury.” For example, for fiscal year 2012 the logs show more than 600 lacerations that did not result in a hospital visit. According to city health officials, lacerations generally require suturing.

Correction officers say they’ve long been skeptical of the official department statistics.

“We’ve always contended that the DOC doesn’t use sufficient procedures to measure jail violence,” said Michael Skelly, spokesman for the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, the union for jail guards.

On the other end of the spectrum is Cynthia Conti-Cook, a civil rights attorney who has represented inmates in injury cases for the last seven years. She contends that inmates are sometimes coached on how to report injuries, specifically regarding those caused by a correction officer during a use-of-force incident. One of her clients, she says, “was literally told to report it that he fell out of bed.”

(Says Skelly: It is “outrageous” to suggest that a correction officer would encourage inmates to not report injuries that are the result of violence.)

Asked to comment on reports of Department of Correction staff coaching inmates, Villafane wrote: “Medical staff completes the injury report after a confidential, face-to-face consultation with the inmate.”

As for the department’s overall disclosure of violence in city jails, Villafane wrote: “The New York City Department of Correction has a rigorous and transparent procedure for collecting inmate safety data and is committed to the highest levels of professionalism and accuracy.”

While statistics can only give a broad understanding of injuries sustained by inmates, the Rikers Island injury log paints a far more detailed picture of life inside the city’s jails.

Because the log contains only limited information about each injury, whether or not any given incident recorded there was the result of violence is uncertain. Some, like human bites, imply an act of violence. In a few instances, medical staff made note of the cause of injury, like the two inmates who each suffered an “alleged rectal assault.” But most entries in the log do not indicate how injuries were sustained.

Still, the number of afflictions reported in the log suggests that many serious injuries are not reflected in the Mayor’s Management Report count, in the statistics reported on the department’s website or the reported tally of accidents.

For example, lacerations appear to be common among inmates. The log shows that at least 1,000 of the traumatic injuries recorded between July 2010 and June 2012 involved a laceration of some kind. They include an inmate who suffered multiple cuts, including a “deep neck” laceration in February 2012, and the one who sustained an eyelid laceration as well as facial trauma in December 2011.

The total number of lacerations is far greater than the number of stabbings and slashings reported by the Department of Correction on its website, which was 41 in fiscal year 2011 and 55 in 2012. The website notes that “though rare, a single incident may involve multiple stabbing and/or slashing inmate victims.” According to the injury log, inmates sustained lacerations on more than 500 different days between July 2010 and June 2012.

When asked what could account for so many lacerations besides slashing and stabbings, the department responded that “A laceration is also known as a cut and may result from a punch, or a fall or from another accident.”

Skelly says that the Department of Correction is underreporting the number of stabbings and slashings. “Those numbers are never really accurate,” he said. “They’re always more conservative than reality.”

Even those injuries that the Department of Correction does report may be miscategorized, according to Jonathan Chasan of the Prisoners Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society. He says that “Class A” use-of-force incidents — in which either a staff member or an inmate sustains a serious injury — are being reported as “Class B” incidents, a category that is supposed to represent minor injuries, treatable with first aid or over-the-counter medications.

“There were more use-of-force incidents in 2012 than ever before in my career, and more Class A incidents than we have seen,” said Chasan who has brought multiple lawsuits against the city for prisoners injured in jail violence. “But there are many incidents that should be classified as Class A and are not.” Legal Aid has filed a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Correction that charges Commissioner Dora Schriro and dozens of correction officers for what the organization describes as a culture of violence and failure of accountability within the city’s jails.

In a court filing, the department denies some allegations and in response to others says that the defendants don’t have sufficient knowledge to say whether they are true or not.

Rising violence in city jails has garnered public attention lately, with the rate of incidents rising according to nearly every indicator. Violent inmate-on-inmate incidents increased from 25.2 per 1,000 inmates each month to 26.9 between fiscal years 2011 and 2012. The topic was the subject of a City Council hearing in April, during which Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley, chair of the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice, called the increase “alarming.” She added that “violence not only jeopardizes the lives of inmates and correction officers, it impedes the reform process and burdens the city with additional financial costs.”

Violence at Rikers also made headlines in June, when 10 correction officers were indicted for the alleged beating of Jamal Lightfoot last summer, an assault so savage that the 27-year-old was left with a disfigured face and impaired vision. And last year, the Village Voice published a dozen gruesome pictures of injuries sustained by inmates as a result of slashings and beatings, and noted that the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Civil Rights was investigating violence on Rikers Island.

According to Conti-Cook, underreporting could be perpetuating violence at Rikers. “Once you have false reporting, anyone who has an inclination towards aggressive and corrupt behavior, they are going to take advantage of it,” she said.

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