NEW YORK -- When prisoners entered the special disciplinary ward, they often received "greeting beatings" from the guards.
At other times, jail supervisors ordered assaults on antagonistic inmates, and head injuries, bone fractures and broken eardrums were common. One prisoner died from an avalanche of blows.
What sounds like an Amnesty International report on a backwater country refers to what happened in the past decade at New York City's jail complex on Rikers Island, as corrections officers and inmates battled for control of the most violent section, informally dubbed the "House of Pain."
The full picture of the punishment meted out by the guards, including some who laughed about it over beer, is only now emerging from court records, mainly as a result of a legal settlement last month spelling out reforms.
Officials at the city's Department of Correction say they have ended the worst problems, and they agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit by 15 prisoners to avoid greater restrictions on the jail.
Bernard Kerik, the department's commissioner, acknowledged in an interview last week that abuses had occurred and that jail officers had covered them up. But he said that, over the last three years, the agency had cleaned up its operations as part of an effort to reduce tensions and improve security within city jails.
"In the past," Kerik said, "there was never the internal oversight and control that there is today." Prisoner injuries have been "substantially reduced," he said, adding: "Are prisoners being beaten into submission? Absolutely not."
But advocates for the rights of prisoners say there are lingering problems at Rikers' disciplinary ward, the Central Punitive Segregation Unit, which houses a constantly changing mix of more than 400 inmates who have committed infractions in the island's 10 jails.
Some national prison analysts said they had never seen a jail where excessive force was so routine. One, Vincent Nathan, said in a report that at least through the mid-1990s Rikers' punitive unit occupied "the third ring of hell in the field of corrections in the United States."
Given the combustible atmosphere in many prisons and jails, and the fact that force is often justified in subduing inmates, it is not clear how many Rikers inmates were injured as a result of deliberate beatings.
Court records show that since the central disciplinary unit opened in 1988, guards have used force to control inmates more than 1,500 times, and at least 300 prisoners have suffered serious injuries, many from blows to the head or to the body that damaged internal organs.
Medical records show that more than 50 inmates had broken bones, and up to 35 had perforated eardrums -- a painful injury that often causes hearing loss. Doctors say it normally takes a hard punch or kick directly to the ear to cause such an injury.
Kerik said of the damaged eardrums, "That kind of thing doesn't happen here any more." Still, the settlement of the prisoners' suit, approved by a federal court July 10, requires the city to expand training in ways to subdue inmates without using force and to do more to root out improper behavior by corrections officers.
"When you're dealing with a culture as deeply embedded as this one, it's going to take a strong commitment by the agency to identify wrongdoing and impose discipline where appropriate," said Jonathan Chasan, a Legal Aid Society lawyer who represented the prisoners in the suit.
But given the department's willingness to settle the case, Chasan said, "This is something we expect to happen."
Pub Date: 8/16/98