Many NYC Inmates Report ‘Head Shots’ From Guards

In this file photo, inmates file out of the prison bakery at Rikers Island after working the morning shift. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews )
In this file photo, inmates file out of the prison bakery at Rikers Island after working the morning shift. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

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.

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 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 deadly. 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.

In issuing the violence report, a city lawyer stressed the injuries attributed to use of force by officers hadn’t been substantiated. And they add that most injuries were treated with 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.

Adolescent inmates accounted for 754 of the verified injuries. 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.

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.

“Until you’ve had … an inmate slash you with a razor … you have no idea what we deal with,” Seabrook said.