NEW YORK — The latest in a string of brutality cases against Rikers Island guards has added fuel to a growing debate on whether New York City's notoriously violent jail complex has become so dysfunctional it should be shut down.
At least 35 staff members at Rikers have faced criminal charges in the past three years, including 13 for assault or attempted assault. Federal prosecutors have also charged more than a half dozen Rikers guards with violating inmates' civil rights through excessive force, smuggling drugs and other charges since 2014.
"Rikers Island is one of these long-term injustices and abuses that every New Yorker should be outraged about," said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. "The situation is intolerable."
Inmate activists have for more than a year argued that shutting down the sprawling, 10-jail complex on the East River is the only solution for a cycle of abuses that include violence by guards and gang members, mistreatment of the mentally ill and juveniles and unjustly long detention for minor offenders.
"If you are a New Yorker who cares about the soul of the criminal justice system, you know that Rikers is the belly of the beast," said Glenn Martin, founder of the non-profit group JustLeadershipUSA, which seeks to decrease the number of Americans behind bars.
Among the other arguments for closing Rikers is that the island facility near La Guardia Airport — accessible only by a narrow bridge — is too isolated, cutting off inmates from the outside world in a way that hinders oversight and rehabilitation.
Daily populations at Rikers have recently been falling below the 15,000 capacity listed on a city website — averaging less than 10,000 — a trend city officials attribute to reducing detention for those charged with misdemeanour drug possession. Advocates say that makes it viable to dismantle Rikers and replace it with a combination of new and expanded existing jails in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. Cost estimates have reached as high as $10 billion.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has stuck to his position that reforms and improvements at Rikers are both the least costly and most practical approach.
A 2015 settlement of civil litigation over pervasive brutality at Rikers imposed various changes, including the addition of thousands of surveillance cameras, stricter policies on use of force and the appointment of a federal monitor to oversee conditions.
Cuomo, who frequently is at odds with fellow Democrat de Blasio, took an indirect jab at the mayor at a community forum earlier this month, saying his view of the city's position is that closing Rikers would be "too hard."
"Well you know what, impotence is not a defence for me," the governor said. "New York City can accomplish anything it wants to, when it wants to. It just needs the political will. It is an outrage in New York City to allow Rikers Island to exist."
The latest brutality case stems from security videotape in a maximum-security shower area that shows guard Rodiny Calypso viciously attacking an unnamed inmate in February 2014, a criminal complaint says. After the pair exchanged words — Calypso claims the inmate spit on him — the guard handcuffed the victim and punched him in the face and the head several times, it says.
Calypso, 38, was released on $150,000 bond. His attorney, Joey Jackson, said Tuesday his client looks forward to his chance to address the allegations in court.
An independent commission headed by the state's former chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, is close to announcing recommendations for reforms in the city's criminal justice system, including whether to shut Rikers for good.
The challenge, Lippman has said, is "to imagine a state-of-the-art criminal justice system in New York City that does not rely on a de facto penal colony on the outskirts of town."
Tom Hays, The Associated Press