In August of 2014, when I was United States Attorney, my office released a 79-page report that detailed abuse, violence, and systemic civil rights violations against incarcerated young people being held at Rikers Island – a jail complex in New York City. Over the course of a multi-year investigation, we found that correction officers and staff were regularly using brutal practices to keep prisoners in line and had created a culture of violence and secrecy that had repeatedly led to injury and death. At the time, I called Rikers a place “where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort; a place where verbal insults are repaid with physical injuries, and where beatings are routine while accountability is rare.” The abuse was staggering – and the memory of what we found still turns my stomach.
After we released our report, we achieved a settlement with New York City that required sweeping changes to Rikers Island and contributed to reform of jails and prisons across New York. The city chose to end solitary confinement for all inmates under 18, and it committed to eventually doing away with the practice for anyone under 21. Earlier this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to close the prison at Rikers Island entirely over the course of a decade. And as a result of our work, correctional facilities were put on notice that just because their inmates were locked away didn’t mean the law was locked out.
I’ve been involved in a lot of cases in my career. My office went after mobsters and murderers; powerful politicians and billionaire Ponzi schemers. We saw some of the toughest abuses of power and greatest injustices in America. But the case of Rikers Island has always struck me as one of the most important of my tenure – and that’s because it dealt with the rights of people who are usually overlooked, and often underserved. On top of the civil case we joined, my office also successfully prosecuted a number of correction officers for atrocious and unconstitutional conduct that resulted in death and injury to Rikers inmates.
As a prosecutor, my bedrock belief was always that everyone deserves the protection of the law, no matter who they are or what they’ve done. After all, the Constitution isn’t a menu of options that we apply here and there when it suits us. It’s a promise, and it tells us that no matter what, we all have the right to be respected as human beings and protected by the rule of law. That may sound corny – and the results are occasionally uncomfortable and unsatisfactory – but I think it’s important to know that whether you’re a 20-year-old kid in prison or a millionaire athlete on a football field, nobody can take away your constitutional rights. For me, that’s part of what makes America special.
My guest this week is Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice and the current President and Chief Executive Officer of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. We talk about civil rights, community policing, and what it means to be an “aggressive” prosecutor. Take a listen, subscribe, and stay tuned.