A few days later, he tore his underwear, looped it around his neck and tried to hang himself from the cell’s highest bar. Four correction officers rushed in and cut him down. But instead of notifying medical personnel, they handcuffed Mr. Bautista, forced him to lie face down on the cell floor and began punching him with such force, according to New York City investigators, that he suffered a perforated bowel and needed emergency surgery.
Just a few weeks earlier, Andre Lane was locked in solitary confinement in a Rikers cellblock reserved for inmates with mental illnesses when he became angry at the guards for not giving him his dinner and splashed them with either water or urine. Correction officers handcuffed him to a gurney and transported him to a clinic examination room beyond the range of video cameras where, witnesses say, several guards beat him as members of the medical staff begged for them to stop. The next morning, the walls and cabinets of the examination room were still stained with Mr. Lane’s blood.
The assaults on Mr. Bautista and Mr. Lane were not isolated episodes. Brutal attacks by correction officers on inmates — particularly those with mental health issues — are common occurrences inside Rikers, the country’s second-largest jail, a four-month investigation by The New York Times found.
Reports of such abuses have seldom reached the outside world, even as alarm has grown this year over conditions at the sprawling jail complex. A dearth of whistle-blowers, coupled with the reluctance of the city’s Department of Correction to acknowledge the problem and the fact that guards are rarely punished, has kept the full extent of the violence hidden from public view.
But The Times uncovered details on scores of assaults through interviews with current and former inmates, correction officers and mental health clinicians at the jail, and by reviewing hundreds of pages of legal, investigative and jail records. Among the documents obtained by The Times was a secret internal study completed this year by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which handles medical care at Rikers, on violence by officers. The report helps lay bare the culture of brutality on the island and makes clear that it is inmates with mental illnesses who absorb the overwhelming brunt of the violence.
The study, which the health department refused to release under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, found that over an 11-month period last year, 129 inmates suffered “serious injuries” — ones beyond the capacity of doctors at the jail’s clinics to treat — in altercations with correction department staff members.
The report cataloged in exacting detail the severity of injuries suffered by inmates: fractures, wounds requiring stitches, head injuries and the like. But it also explored who the victims were. Most significantly, 77 percent of the seriously injured inmates had received a mental illness diagnosis.
Covering Jan. 1, 2013, to Nov. 30, 2013, the report included no names and had little by way of details about specific cases. But The Times was able to obtain specific information on all 129 cases and used it to take an in-depth look at 24 of the most serious incidents, including Mr. Bautista’s and Mr. Lane’s. The Times also examined numerous other attacks on inmates by jail employees uncovered independently of the report.
What emerges is a damning portrait of guards on Rikers Island, who are poorly equipped to deal with mental illness and instead repeatedly respond with overwhelming force to even minor provocations.
The report notes that health department staff members interviewed 80 of the 129 inmates after their altercations with correction officers. In 80 percent of the cases, inmates reported being beaten after they were handcuffed.
The study also contained hints of efforts to cover up the assaults. More than half of the inmates reported facing “interference or intimidation” from correction officers while seeking treatment after an altercation.
In five of the 129 cases, the beatings followed suicide attempts.
Many of the cases were similar to Mr. Bautista’s and Mr. Lane’s, in which several guards ganged up on a single inmate. At times, a slight aimed at a correction officer set off a chain of events that ended savagely.
While it was often hard to know what precipitated the altercation or who was at fault, the severity of the inmates’ injuries makes it clear that Rikers guards regularly failed to meet basic professional standards.
Even so, none of the officers involved in the 129 cases have been prosecuted at this point, according to information from the Bronx district attorney’s office. None have been brought up on formal administrative charges in connection to the cases so far either, though that process can sometimes be lengthy, and the Correction Department does not comment on pending investigations.
The assaults took place as guards have been struggling to contain surging violence at Rikers. The number of fights between inmates has increased year by year since at least 2009, according to Correction Department data. Assaults on correction officers and civilian staff members have also risen.
The growing numbers of mentally unstable inmates, with issues like depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are a major factor in the violence. Rikers now has about as many people with mental illnesses — roughly 4,000 of the 11,000 inmates — as all 24 psychiatric hospitals in New York State combined. They make up nearly 40 percent of the jail population, up from about 20 percent eight years ago.