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NY teen violence law met with skepticism

May 17, 2009 2:48:58 PM PDT
It took the vicious jailhouse beating death of Charnel Robinson's teenage son to spur passage of a law that might help to expose violence in city facilities that house adolescent inmates. But the mother of 18-year-old Christopher Robinson, who was killed at a Rikers Island jail, said it was at least some kind of victory.

"It makes me extremely hopeful that lives could be saved," she said in an interview this past week.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg on May 11 signed a law that requires the Department of Correction, which runs the city's jails, to publicly disclose statistics on violence against incarcerated teens, whether committed by staff or by other inmates.

Elected officials and inmate advocates had pushed for the legislation as a small measure of accountability in the wake of a four-month investigation into Christopher Robinson's death on Oct. 18, 2008, at the Robert N. Davoren Complex. That is one of 10 jails that make up the sprawling correctional system on the 400-acre Rikers Island, which sits in the East River between Queens and the Bronx.

Bronx prosecutors have accused three correction officers at the Davoren complex of allowing a "Lord of the Flies"-style crew of inmates to run amok in one of the housing units and enforce rules through bullying, intimidation and violence. Prosecutors allege that one of their victims was Robinson, who had been remanded to the jail after a parole violation and dared to defy their authority.

District Attorney Robert Johnson said the inmate crew, known as the Program, had turned the jail into "an incubator for violent criminal activity." The three guards and 12 inmates arrested in the probe have pleaded not guilty to charges ranging from enterprise corruption and conspiracy to manslaughter.

The city's average daily inmate population last year was about 14,000, more than the prison populations of many states. About 800 of those inmates were adolescents, most of them held at the Davoren complex.

Before and since the allegations that surfaced in the Robinson case, the Department of Correction said it had instituted changes aimed at curtailing violence among teens, including adding more guards and separating inmates according to age. Teenagers charged as adults and between the ages of 16 and 18 are housed at Rikers.

A spokesman for the department, Stephen Morello, said in an e-mail that the city's jails are "the safest they have ever been" and called them "the safest large city jails in the nation."

Department Commissioner Martin Horn called the Robinson case, the first homicide in the city's jails in four years, "tragic and shocking."

The Department of Correction has traditionally published some data on violence in its jails, but it has not typically pulled out statistics related to violence against or among adolescent inmates.

Inmate advocates have long chafed at what they say is a lack of transparency of life behind the walls of the city's jails, especially when it comes to incarcerated teens.

The new law requires that the department disclose statistics on alleged or actual physical contact between adolescent inmates and correction officers, serious injuries suffered by teens, census data and slashings and stabbings.

Some inmate advocates, though, said that wasn't enough.

Nancy Ginsburg, who directs a program for the Legal Aid Society for teenagers ages 13 to 18 who are in the criminal justice system, said it would be helpful to have government information about what's happening in the Rikers jail system but her group was concerned that the law adopts the definitions used by the Department of Correction.

"Our concern is that they are going to be able to define out the injuries that are important to know about," Ginsburg said.

Under the law, a serious injury would have to create "a substantial risk of death or disfigurement," "loss or impairment of a bodily organ" or "a fracture or break to a bone" - but not of fingers or toes. It also covers "an injury defined as serious by a physician" and "any additional injury as defined by the department."

Ginsburg said that under the law, a teen with a swollen jaw or a lump on the head who isn't admitted to a hospital might not be reflected in the statistics.

"What's medically considered to be serious and what the department considers serious are probably two different things," she said.

Charisa Smith, the Juvenile Justice Project director at the Correctional Association of New York, also criticized the definitions under the law.

"When the department defines serious injury, it's subjective," she said. "And it's not clear whether that will lead to transparency."

She also said the law falls short by not requiring the department to disclose data on race and ethnicity of the adolescent inmates. She said having that data would allow for tracking of the "overrepresentation" of blacks and Latinos in city jails.

Councilwoman Letitia James, one of the sponsors of the bill, said she was unsure whether having the data from the correction department might prevent another case like Robinson's.

"If we were to have had this information, perhaps we would have been able to predict a pattern," she said.

Mishi Faruqee, of the Children's Defense Fund in New York, said that having the data could help to determine whether programs aimed at reducing violence in jails that house teens are effective.

Just having more transparency is a benefit, too, she said.

"I think that jails and prisons by their nature are very closed institutions," she said. "The more closed they are the more abuse that can happen."


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