What Conditions Led to the Widespread Inmate Abuses at Rikers Island?

Sunlight floods an empty prison cell blockCorrections officers at Rikers Island, which is home to about 500 teenage inmates, regularly inflict severe and unwarranted abuse on inmates, according to a new report by the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan. The report details incidents of an inmate who received a skull fracture, an inmate overheard sobbing for his mother while being beaten, and numerous other stories of abuse. The report states that a “deep-seated culture of violence is pervasive” on Rikers Island.

Abuse of Teen Inmates

The juvenile inmates on Rikers Island aren’t necessarily hardened criminals; a third haven’t even committed felonies, and the overwhelming majority will eventually be released. Severe mental health issues are astonishingly high on Rikers Island, with 51% of inmates receiving a mental health diagnosis. The report suggests that teens with mental health challenges were frequently subjected to the worst abuses.

According to the report, officers regularly abuse solitary confinement, leaving inmates in confinement for long periods and for minor infractions. Numerous human rights groups have argued that solitary confinement is a form of torture that leaves lasting emotional scars. Corrections officers routinely assaulted inmates, often taking inmates away from cameras to administer beatings. Abuse by officers caused serious injuries, and officers caused 1,057 injuries in 2013 alone.

Officers who abused inmates were rarely punished, and jail staff used coded terms to threaten inmates who reported officer abuse. Inmates who reported the abuse were often victimized by retaliatory abuse.

In addition to violent abuse, inmates may be routinely denied proper health care. Andy Henriquez, for example, complained of chest pain for months, sobbing loudly in his cell. Other inmates begged guards to help him, and he was finally taken to a doctor, who wrote him a prescription for hand cream. He eventually died from a torn artery.

The Psychology of Corrections Officers

An infamous psychology experiment, the Stanford Prison Experiment, found in 1971 that simply assigning students to be either guards or inmates promoted violence. More recently, Thomas Carnahan and Sam McFarland theorized that prison guards are prone to violence, and tested their theory with a study.

They placed a newspaper ad recruiting participants to a study. In one ad, the study was marketed simply as “a psychological study,” while in the other, the study recruited volunteers for a “psychological study of prison life.” Caranahan and McFarland reasoned that the people who were attracted to the second study might be the same sorts of people attracted to working in a prison setting. They found that respondents to the second ad were higher on five personality traits associated with aggression—authoritarianism, social dominance, Machiavallianism, narcissism, and dispositional aggression—and low on empathy and altruism.

Whether corrections officers tend toward aggression or not, it’s clear that the culture on Rikers Island might seem appealing to corrections officers with abusive personalities.


  1. Investigation into violence toward teenagers at Rikers Island. (2014, August 04). Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/08/05/nyregion/05rikers-report.html
  2. McFarland, S. (2014, August 13). The prison guard’s psyche. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/14/opinion/the-prison-guard-s-psyche.html?_r=0
  3. Soave, R. (2014, August 18). Rikers teen inmate dies in agony after officials ignore torn artery for months. Retrieved from http://reason.com/blog/2014/08/18/rikers-teen-inmate-dies-in-agony-after-o
  4. Torture: The use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://ccrjustice.org/solitary-factsheet

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  • MaRcUs


    August 19th, 2014 at 12:28 PM

    How do we know about this and this kind of behavior is still allowed to happen? Why not go in and clean house of these abusive officers because surely there are those who wish to make a difference in a child’s life and not inflict abuse. These teens need guidance, not more hurt in their lives!

  • Maribeth


    August 19th, 2014 at 3:09 PM

    There is this thing called tough love that I think that a lot of people think will help teenagers who are in trouble when in truth most of them have only had tough all their lives and now what they need is love. Of course there will be a strong facade of bravery and hurt that will have to be broken down before they will ever think to let you in. This is where too many people get frustrated and give up because thye want to initially help but they get frustrated from being rebuffed and pushed away. Maybe this is where some of this kind of behavior with the adults in these situations stems from because I would hate to think that someone would intentionally take this kind of job in some sick way to want to whip these kids into shape. They need so much more than that before they will turn out to be productive members of society.

  • zoe


    August 20th, 2014 at 2:26 PM

    Is there no system for accountability for these officers? As a parent I would be looking over every single shoulder to make sure that my child was not being abused and yet this seemed to happen very regularly in this setting. I am so disturbed that there are adults placed in positions of responsibility who are not living up to the expectations of what they have been hired to do and that they are inflicting this kind of abuse on mostly helpless victims.

  • Marnie


    August 21st, 2014 at 3:45 AM

    perhaps the guards should be subjected to some of the same treatment that they doled out and maybe this would make them think twice before treating someone this way again/

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