Supervision and Discipline of Corrections Officers Are Key to Stopping Violence on Rikers Island

Although the standard response to police and corrections staff violence is calls for improved training, violent behav­ior by uni­formed officers is often deeply tied to a lack of monitoring and consequences for misbehavior.

The problem of violence throughout the criminal justice system is not unimodal but multimodal, and a multimodal response is required to reduce violence, especially in adolescent correctional facilities. Although it is clearly most necessary to confront the wider systemic forces that drive this violence, immediate steps must also be taken to prevent crisis events, such as the recent incident when Eric Garner died in New York after being placed in a chokehold by a uniformed officer while allegedly resisting arrest. Although New York City Police Department (NYPD) commissioner Bratton responded by calling for improved training, the NYPD and Department of Correction (DOC) are among the best-trained units in the world; clearly, violent behavior by uniformed officers is more about the lack of supervision (and no consequences for misbehavior or monitoring of violent incidents) rather than about inadequate training.

Key pieces of the problem are a lack of effective supervision of officers onsite, a lack of objective monitoring of violence, and a lack of accountability by officers for use of force.

It cannot be stated strongly enough that training is, at most, a small part of the issue; improved training may help, but it will not substantially ameliorate this problem. Multiple interventions are needed to lower the frequency of violence by both suspects or prisoners and police or correction officers. Seymour W. James Jr., attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society, noted the importance of consequences, monitoring and supervision: “It’s unfortunate that Mr. Garner had to die for the police department to examine their practices but I think it goes beyond training . . . it also requires supervision and discipline.”

An Overview of the Problem

In the Garner chokehold death, police stated that the smaller officer felt he had to employ a chokehold to subdue the much larger suspect, who they claimed was resisting arrest. Similarly, correction officers often claim they were attacked by prisoners to excuse excessive violence experienced by incarcerated persons. Over the past several years, there have been dozens of news reports about uncontrolled violence on Rikers Island. (1) Last week, The New York Times reported that under former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, cost-cutting measures to reduce correction staff resulted in a 90 percent increase in use of force by officers against prisoners, according to the DOC’s own statistics. The Times reports that overworked staff “increasingly [lashed] out at prisoners” – and due to reduced services, “resentment and anger among prisoners [led] to more attacks on guards by prisoners.” Key pieces of the problem are a lack of effective supervision of officers onsite, a lack of objective monitoring of violence, and a lack of accountability by officers for use of force – exacerbated by ineffectual leadership at the top, i.e., the Mayor’s Office, Department of Correction and Correction Officers Union.

The Times article cited the Nuñez lawsuit, filed against the DOC by the Legal Aid Society on May 24, 2014, and a civil rights investigation by the US attorney general dated August 4, 2014, which both provide gruesome details about the nature, level and frequency of violence experienced by prisoners, officers and staff alike on Rikers Island. Fully 24 pages of the lawsuit and 12 pages of the single-spaced federal report describe injuries, abuse and indignities suffered by prisoners: being maced, stripped naked, taunted, spit on, struck from behind while handcuffed, beaten, punched, kicked and choked out of view of video cameras, head or face smashed onto the floor, wall or cell bars, struck with baton or police radio, yelled at, threatened with death, dragged, put in punitive segregation (solitary confinement) for long periods of time (often falsely accused of attacking or resisting officers who were beating them), forced to sign false statements on what occurred, and deprived of medical attention for injuries resulting from these attacks.

Effective, well-trained and respected supervisors in the field are an important deterrent to excessive use of force by uniformed officers.

The descriptions are hellish: “broken bones, perforated eardrums, and spinal injuries” are just the beginning: The lawsuit lists orbital and nasal fractures, chronic pain, tinnitus, hearing and vision loss, dizziness and concussion after blows to the head; flashbacks, nightmares, cold sweats, anxiety, depression, insomnia and PTSD; contusions, lacerations requiring stitches, swelling, bruising, broken or lost teeth and cut lips from being hit in the face; blood in the urine; and on and on. The lawsuit asserts plaintiffs “did not assault any officer nor . . . present a threat to the personal safety of any officer or to the security of the jail . . . [and] did not conduct [themselves] in any manner that would warrant any use of force, much less the unnecessary and excessive force actually used . . .”

The Nuñez lawsuit examines whether “correction officers and [supervisors] engaged in . . . use of unnecessary and excessive force . . . knowingly encouraged, facilitated and institutionalized such brutality . . . failed to investigate and remedy known incidents of unnecessary and excessive force and false reporting . . . [and] failed to train, supervise and discipline line correction officers and staff . . .” The federal investigation report cites the extraordinary frequency of violence including prisoner-on-prisoner violence, a high number of serious injuries, use of force by staff as punishment or retribution in response to verbal altercations or for failure to follow orders, falsely claiming a prisoner was resisting to justify use of force and high levels of use of force in areas without cameras.

Simultaneous with taking on the deep structural problems that drive the “justice” system, something must be done to reduce this inhumane treatment of prisoners, especially by the officers charged with their care and confinement. The Times editorial stated, “If rapid improvements cannot be made, the Justice Department . . . should step in to remedy what is clearly a barbaric situation,” – and indeed, the federal report promises that if the situation is not remedied, the attorney general may “initiate a lawsuit pursuant to CRIPA [Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act] to correct [these] deficiencies . . .”

Training and Supervision

Effective, well-trained and respected supervisors in the field are an important deterrent to excessive use of force by uniformed officers. If an officer is unable to control emotional, racist or immature responses to taunts by suspects or prisoners, all the training in the world won’t help – the officer has to be managed by an effective supervisor. There is a training component in supervision: Unlike academy training which takes place in the comfort of air-conditioned classrooms, unit managers train officers and front line supervisors in the field, dealing with issues that arise day-to-day and cannot be replicated in training. Improved supervision in the field will reduce violence by uniformed officers, especially training on use of force and managing adolescents, as noted in the federal report.

For any new intervention program to be effective, staff must be motivated to change, and the effort must be supported 100 percent by upper management.

Even worse is when front-line supervisors allow, encourage or actually train their subordinates to use force inappropriately, as alleged in the current Nuñez lawsuit: “The pattern of excessive and unnecessary force in the jails is known to, fostered, and encouraged by department supervisors . . . Supervisors fail to adequately investigate reports of staff use of force.”The lawsuit states that violence has been inflicted by “uniformed staff . . . knowingly permitted and encouraged by Department supervisors . . . who have created and now perpetuate a policy of permitting uniformed staff to use unlawful, excessive force with impunity . . . [failing] to rein in lawless staff and curb violence in the jails, despite having full knowledge of the . . . scores of serious injuries [suffered by] prisoners . . . “

For any new intervention program to be effective, staff must be motivated to change, and the effort must be supported 100 percent by upper management. If, prior to actually “trying” a new initiative, senior DOC staff or supervisors decide it’s not going to work – then it won’t work. The reality is that some staff will not embrace these ideas; they are stuck in the past, and administrators must develop pro-social initiatives to help staff grow, develop and be motivated to accept a new way of doing business. Unfortunately, one of the “systemic deficiencies leading to excessive and unnecessary staff use of force and high levels of prisoner violence” cited in the federal report is a significant disconnect between front-line officers and supervisors and top managers. Management’s physical separation from the jails with offsite offices “contributes to a broken organizational culture . . . defined by anti-prisoner attitudes and a powerful code of silence . . . [based on officers’ feeling] that civilian administrators don’t understand how difficult their jobs are because they don’t understand the reality of the situation on the ground in the facilities.”

Monitoring and Reporting

Monitoring of violence by politically unaffiliated compliance consultants, usually connected to and empowered by the federal court and financed from the federal court and DOC budgets to monitor court-ordered consent decrees, is extremely unpopular with some correctional staff, precisely because it prevents the inadequate reporting noted above, and leads to staff discipline for infractions as described below. However, under all previous NYCDOC consent decrees monitored by politically unaffiliated compliance consultants connected to and empowered by the federal court, conditions of confinement not only got exponentially better for the prisoners but for the staff as well. This type of monitoring is critical to reduce violence throughout the system.

Under all previous NYCDOC consent decrees monitored by politically unaffiliated compliance consultants connected to and empowered by the federal court, conditions of confinement not only got exponentially better for the prisoners but for the staff as well.

The federal report noted that officers often failed to report use of force, made inadequate, inaccurate, untimely and/or falsified reports, and suppressed video documentation; prisoners and witnesses were threatened by staff not to file reports (“hold it down”), or file false reports, even when prisoners suffered serious physical injuries. The report also said there were inadequate investigations into use of force, both at the facility level and by the Investigation Department (ID), Department of Investigation (DOI) or the facility’s own Investigation Unit (IU), with confusion about which group should perform the investigation, leading to a lack of discipline of any officers involved (see following section).

Compliance consultants serve as an independent investigative body that could help to clear up some of the confusion about looking into use of force incidents, making concrete, pragmatic recommendations and providing technical direction to the DOC to ensure compliance with court orders. Having compliance consultants in place also helps the DOC commissioner by reducing resistance from City Hall to allocate the resources to the DOC needed to ensure compliance with court orders. These resources could help reduce institutional violence by being applied to provide better training for and additional hiring of unit managers and other supervisory and investigative personnel, to implement additional prisoner educational programs and mental health services.

In addition to use of force by officers against prisoners, the federal report noted extreme violence perpetrated by the prisoners themselves, either against each other (often underreported) or against staff. In some cases, prisoner-perpetrated violence is even directed by officers, who utilize some prisoners to control others, sometime with horrific results including death. (2) Officers may claim being attacked by prisoners, either verbally or physically, to justify excessive use of force; while this claim may be true (especially when service cutbacks lead to increased resentment of officers by prisoners), training and supervision should prevent inappropriate violent responses to taunts or physical challenges, especially coming from adolescent prisoners or prisoners with mental illness. This summer, the NYC DOC and DOI arrested 30 prisoners for criminal possession of a weapon, “spitting in a Correction Officer’s face, multiple prisoners involved in a fight, and the assault . . . of a Correction Officer by an prisoner”; nine correctional staff were also arrested in this investigation.

“Increases in the severity of punishment, rather than reduce crime, may actually increase it [while] increases in the certainty of apprehension . . . have possible effects on crime reduction.”

The federal report also noted prisoner-on-prisoner violence being caused by “limited programming and structured activities,” an inadequate prisoner classification system leading to “unsafe conditions in adolescent housing areas,” inadequate prisoner supervision and failure to monitor prisoner conduct. These violent events must be accurately reported by staff, documented by witnesses and/or video evidence, with data collected by an objective (as objective as possible) monitor, in order for appropriate solutions to be developed and implemented to reduce the horrific level of violence experienced by prisoners and officers alike.

An important aspect in ensuring acceptance of monitoring and investigation is the level of perceived procedural justice in the process. “Research . . . indicates that offenders who report a high level of procedural justice are more likely to comply with court orders, to perceive laws and legal institutions as legitimate, and to engage in future law-abiding behavior.” (3) Features of procedural justice include both prisoners and officers having a voice in the proceedings; being treated with respect; the neutrality of the oversight group (in other words, neither the officers nor the prisoners should feel that the monitoring or investigating body is biased in favor of or against either party); understanding reasons for decisions and how to comply with court orders; and believing that the rulings are trying to be helpful to the situation.

Discipline and Consequences

To reduce violent acts by uniformed officers or prisoners, defined and immediate consequences must be enforced for inappropriate and/or illegal behavior by both prisoners and correctional employees. Once all DOC staff (uniformed or civilian), prisoners, and even visitors, know that violence will not be tolerated – and that there will be swift and certain consequences for any infractions – the frequency of such acts will be reduced. As the Legal Aid Society noted regarding the Garner chokehold death, “[There were] over a thousand complaints about chokeholds . . . [but] only nine were substantiated and . . . the former police commissioner only imposed serious discipline in one of those cases. So [there was] no deterrent to engaging in unlawful behavior . . .(4) (emphasis added)

“The fact that physical abuse by officers remains unrestrained has led the staff to believe – reasonably – that prisoners may be beaten with impunity.”

Some examples of escalating sanctions for misbehavior by uniformed officers could include loss of vacation days, loss of a steady tour or post, suspension (with or without pay), loss of promotion or transfer, and ultimately termination and prosecution for criminal acts perpetrated against incarcerated persons.

Experts on punishment as a deterrent note three critical features: severity, certainty and celerity (speed): “The closer the application of punishment is to the commission of the offense, the greater the likelihood that offenders will realize that crime does not pay.” (5) Research shows certainty is most important, and that excessive severity diminishes effectiveness, since if consequences outweigh the crime, it is seen as unfair: “Increases in the severity of punishment, rather than reduce crime, may actually increase it [while] increases in the certainty of apprehension . . . have possible effects on crime reduction.” (6) The Department of Justice states: “Supervision is inadequate by itself . . . however, when combined with . . . the consistent application of sanctions for noncompliance, supervision can then become an effective tool.” This information is critical in developing disciplinary procedures for both prisoners and officers who use force inappropriately. Consequences must be swift and sure, but not excessive . . . indeed, if the punishment is too severe, it becomes yet another form of violence itself, an illegal assault against the individual being “disciplined.” This type of violence is noted in both Nuñez and the federal report: excessively violent, retributive treatment of prisoners (i.e., painful handcuffing, beatings, etc.) – these are not appropriate consequences for prisoner transgressions, but violent acts that should be punished themselves.

Nuñez directly addresses the issue of lack of consequences: “Supervisors permit and encourage . . . subordinates to engage in excessive use of force at no detriment to their careers.” (emphasis added) The lawsuit lists numerous violent incidents which were incited, overseen and/or not prevented by senior officers – who remain employed, assigned to the same post, were not punished and in fact often were promoted to higher positions, despite being suspended for being improperly trained, failing to supervise subordinates or submitting false and misleading reports after an assault. When transferred to other units, there are dramatic increases in prisoner complaints about excessive force, and lawsuits for failing to protect prisoners from staff brutality, demonstrating a continued pattern of abuse. The lawsuit states that “the fact that physical abuse by officers remains unrestrained has led the staff to believe – reasonably – that prisoners may be beaten with impunity.”

The federal report identified “systemic deficiencies leading to excessive and unnecessary staff use of force and high levels of prisoner violence,” including inadequate and/or falsified use of force reports, inadequate investigations into use of force (including poor quality and untimeliness), and inadequate staff discipline, noting “because most investigations conclude that staff have not violated DOC policies, often despite evidence to the contrary . . . staff are rarely disciplined for using unnecessary or excessive force . . . [and that] in other . . . clear violations of use of force policies, the sanctions were not . . . proportionate to the seriousness of the offense . . . This disproportionate discipline relative to offense encourages continued infractions by staff (usually the same individuals), since there are no policies in place to identify or remove even staff with ‘histories of involvement in staggering numbers of use of force incidents.'”

The Justice Department report concludes with 10 pages of remedial measures, which “the Department should implement at a minimum:” house adolescents separately; increase numbers of cameras; strengthen and clarify use of force directives; improve use of force reporting and investigation; improve prisoner safety and supervision; improve officer and supervisor training and accountability; enforce prisoner discipline; and ensure management and leadership continuity, strategic plan and unannounced onsite tours. The details of these remedial measures strongly support all 26 propositions (8) by this author to reduce extreme violence in adolescent correctional facilities, including the three in this article.

As the recent Times editorial stated, “attacks by officers on prisoners have been commonplace and . . . perpetrators are rarely prosecuted . . . potential whistle-blowers refrain from speaking up out of fear of retribution from corrections officers . . . Commissioner Ponte says that he has . . . improved training for corrections officers and is increasing the number of security cameras in the jails so that officials can monitor more interactions between guards and prisoners.” However, even with the current number of cameras, and despite intimidated witnesses afraid to provide accurate testimony, the federal investigation and the Nuñez lawsuit documented dozens of instances of excessive violence and mistreatment of prisoners by uniformed staff. Clearly, without instituting swift, sure and severe consequences for officers and supervisors who ignore the DOC’s use of force policies, this misbehavior will continue unchecked.

Moving Forward

In sum, while the problem of violence in correctional institutions is a multimodal problem requiring a multimodal response, immediate steps must be taken as soon as possible to curb this dangerous trend. In conjunction with crucial reforms to address the culture that perpetuates this violence, enhanced supervision and monitoring can help reduce the number of incidents and increase officer accountability.


1. See, for example: Brutality in New York City jails (The New York Times Editorial 7/18/14); Schwirtz, M., Rikers Island struggles with a surge in violence and mental illness (The New York Times 3/18/14); Weiser, B., Lawsuit accuses city’s jails of condoning prisoner abuse (The New York Times 5/29/12); Rayman, G. , Rikers violence: Out of control (Village Voice 5/9/12); Hamilton, B., Brutal system of teen beatings continues at Rikers Island’s RNDC prison (New York Post 5/6/12); Gray, G., The Lords of Rikers (New York Magazine 1/30/11); Rayman, G., Rikers fight club: the knockout punch (Village Voice 4/15/09); Rikers horror story (The New York Times Editorial 1/29/09), and many more.

2. U.S. Department of Justice report, pp. 44-45, regarding the death of prisoner Christopher Robinson in 2008, also reported in Gray, G., The Lords of Rikers (New York Magazine 1/30/11).

3. Rempel, M. (2014). Evidence-Based Strategies for Working with Offenders. Center for Court Innovation, Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice, April 2014, pp. 4-5, citing Gottfredson, D.C., Kearley, B.W., Najaka, S.S., and Rocha, C.M. (2007). How Drug Treatment Courts Work: An Analysis of Mediators.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 4: 3: 3-35; Rossman, S.B., Roman, J.K., Zweig, J.M., Rempel, M., and Lindquist, C.H. (eds.). The Multi-Site Adult Drug Court Evaluation. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute; Tyler and Huo (2002), Op Cit.

4. Legal Aid Society (2014). In the aftermath of Eric Garner’s tragic death… July 25, 2014.

5. Ihekwoaba D. Onwudiwe I. D., Odo,J. and Onyeozili, E. C. (2005). Deterrence Theory, in Encyclopedia of Prisons and Correctional Facilities, Bosworth, M. (ed.), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, p. 235.

6. Deterrence Theory, p. 236.

7. Rempel, M. (2014). Evidence-Based Strategies for Working with Offenders, April 2014, citing Petersilia, J. (1999). A Decade of Experimenting with Intermediate Sanctions: What Have We Learned? Perspectives, 23: 39-44; Sherman, L. W., Gottfredson, D., Mackenzie, D., Eck, J., Reuter, P., and Bushway, S. (1997). Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn’t, What’s Promising? Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice; Taxman, F. (2002). Supervision: Exploring the Dimensions of Effectiveness. Federal Probation, 66: 14-27.

8. Fullard, D. (2014). A blueprint for reducing extreme adolescent violence in correctional institutions via a comprehensive multimodal approach: An executive summary. Unpublished paper.