NEW YORK – Nearly a third of Rikers Island inmates who said their visible injuries came at the hands of a correction officer last year had suffered a blow to the head, a tactic that is supposed to be a guard's last resort because it is potentially fatal, according to an internal report obtained by The Associated Press.
The report, acquired by the AP via a Freedom of Information request, also found that an average of three inmates a day were treated for visible injuries they claimed were caused by correction officers and 20 others each day suffered injuries primarily from violent encounters with other inmates.
Inmate advocates said the report shows that not enough is being done to stop violence at the notorious 12,000-inmate jail, by far the largest of New York City's lockups.
"The New York City jails are extremely violent," said Legal Aid Society attorney Mary Lynne Werlwas, who is representing Rikers inmates in a class-action lawsuit that alleges a pattern of excessive force by officers. "We should not be seeing these numbers of head shots. We should not be seeing this degree of facial injury. ... It's a problem the department has known about for some time."
The report, prepared by New York City health department officials, found 8,557 verified injuries among Rikers' inmates between April 2012 and April 2013. Of those, 1,257 injuries allegedly resulted from use-of-force by corrections officers. The rest were attributed primarily to inmate-on-inmate violence. It classified 304 of the injuries as serious, meaning they were fractures or other injuries that required more than first-aid treatment.
Among the injuries blamed on guards, 28 percent involved a blow to the head.
Referred to as "head shots" in corrections parlance, blows to the head are supposed to be used by officers as a last resort because they can be potentially fatal. Under department policy, officers are instructed to use less forceful measures first, such as issuing verbal orders, using pepper spray or stun guns and grasping or pushing inmates.
Correctional health emergency care logs acquired by the AP in a separate records request show that head and facial injuries included nose and cheek bone fractures as well as cuts to the eyes, lips and face.
In issuing the violence report, a city lawyer stressed the injuries attributed to use-of-force by officers hadn't been substantiated.
City Department of Correction officials said in a statement most injuries from use of force last year were treated with over-the-counter first aid. The department also said that, given the number of inmates in the system, it considers the rate of serious violence to be relatively low and continues to look for ways to reduce it further, such as stepping up investigations and adding nearly 2,000 security cameras in recent years.
New York's isn't the only U.S. jail system to struggle with violence and use-of-force issues.
Sheriff's deputies in Los Angeles County jails, the nation's largest, have recently been indicted for alleged crimes that included beating inmates and even jail visitors. The American Civil Liberties Union has monitored conditions there since 1985 and released a report in 2012 that found 11 inmates had facial bones broken by deputies between 2009 and 2011.
Comparisons to other penitentiaries are difficult to make. City jails in general are considered more dangerous than state or federal prisons, according to experts. And only 5 percent of the roughly 3,000 jails nationwide have 1,000 inmates or more, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In a 2006 study of U.S. jail inmates based on 2002 data, the bureau found that 7 percent had been injured in a fight during their time behind bars.
Kip Kautzky, a national prisons expert who served as head of corrections in Iowa and Colorado, reviewed the New York City data and said the number of use-of-force injuries said to be caused by blows to the head appeared to be startlingly high.
"It just isn't a defensive tactic that is useful or should be allowed," he said.
The report's findings come as the U.S. Justice Department probes violence among adolescent inmates at Rikers, particularly those in a youth jail that houses 16- to 18-year-olds, according to three city officials who confirmed the inquiry on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation.
Adolescent inmates accounted for 754 of the verified injuries, according to the report. About 14 percent of them allegedly involved a correction officer. One of them likely included Aunray Stanford, who was 18 years old in May 2012 when, he alleges in a federal lawsuit, his skull was fractured and his face was cut when Rikers guards beat him at the youth jail. The city Law Department declined to comment on the ongoing lawsuit.
A spokeswoman for Manhattan federal prosecutors, who are conducting the investigation, declined to comment. The corrections department said it has cooperated with federal investigators.
Officers decide to use force based on perceived threats in real time, said Martin F. Horn, a former city correction commissioner.
Norman Seabrook, president of the city's 9,000-member correction officers' union, said correction officers should use "whatever force is necessary to terminate an aggression." Unlike police officers, correction officers "only have their hands and/or their batons to use," he said.
Corrections officers themselves are at risk of injury. Prison guards have one of the highest injury rates among all occupations, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Seabrook said chronic understaffing combined with rampant gang violence at Rikers, particularly among adolescents, has created an environment in which violence becomes hard to manage.
"Until you've had human feces thrown at you or have an inmate slash you with a razor ... you have no idea what we deal with," he said.