Video of 'Fight Night' at Rikers Jail Leads Judge to Find Cruel and Unusual Punishment

A New York state judge found video of guards ceding control of Rikers to gang leaders more than enough evidence to order the release of a pretrial inmate.


A New York state judge ordered a pretrial inmate at New York City's beleaguered Rikers Jail to be released last week after finding that the incarcerated man's "credible testimony and overwhelming supporting video evidence" of squalid conditions, pervasive violence, and indifference from jailers violated the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The plaintiff, identified only as "Relator G" in court documents, was being held in Rikers while awaiting trial on felony burglary charges. He claims he was held in an intake area without a bed or mattress for 11 days, was fed only a single meal a day or sometimes not at all, and repeatedly attacked by other inmates. After he was finally moved to a real housing unit, he was forced by a gang leader on his cell block to participate in a "fight night" while correctional officers watched on. 

New York Acting Supreme Court Justice April A. Newbauer found that Relator G's writ of habeas corpus, backed up by video showing short-staffed correctional officers ceding control of cell blocks to gang leaders, more than met the bar for an Eighth Amendment violation.

"As a result of glaringly obvious mismanagement, Relator G has not only suffered at the hands of violence-prone detainees, but also lacked adequate food, exercise, and health services," Newbauer wrote in her December 22 order.

The ruling is just the latest in a series of scathing opinions and reports on the ongoing crisis at New York City's infamous island jail. Sixteen incarcerated people have died in New York City's jail complex this year—the most since 2013.

A New York state senator said lawmakers touring Rikers in September saw a man trying to kill himself. A public defender who toured the jail told The Intercept that inmates in one segregated intake unit were locked in small showers and given plastic bags to defecate into.

In a September court hearing before a U.S. district court judge, a federal monitor documented widespread security lapses, failures to help inmates who were trying to commit suicide in plain view of officers, and a small guard rotation working double and triple shifts. Meanwhile, use of force by officers, inmate-on-inmate violence, and inmate-on-guard assaults have all increased.

"This state of seriously compromised safety has spiraled to a point at which, on a daily basis, there is a manifest risk of serious harm to both detainees and staff, which in turn, generates high levels of fear among both groups with each accusing the other of exacerbating already challenging conditions," the monitor wrote in an August 24 letter to U.S. District Judge Laura T. Swain. "Turmoil is the inevitable outcome of such a volatile state of affairs."

For Relator G, this turmoil allegedly involved gang leaders—not the correctional officers—controlling food, water, phones, and recreation time.

Relator G testified that on October 19, the leader of his cell block forced him and other inmates to fight each other inside a cell while the rest of the unit cheered them on. He allegedly received cigarettes and extra food as a reward. 

"Relator G testified—and video surveillance corroborates—that after the first two fights, a female [correctional officer] approached the leader to tell him to 'quiet things down' and make the violence appear less obvious to COs stationed where this could be observed on the monitors," Newbauer wrote in her opinion. "The video surveillance also shows one CO watching several of the fights from an elevated position on the second tier of the housing unit. At no point did any correction official attempt to break up the fights."

Newbauer wrote that video also showed correctional officers attempting to take inmates out for recreation time, only to be overruled by a leader on the cell block.

Newbauer found that Relator G's well-documented claims "not only corroborated the independent monitor's general findings in Nunez, but gave them a specific human face."

As I wrote in the January issue of Reason, New York City has a tentative plan to permanently close Rikers in 2027, but "the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment extends to providing incarcerated people with food, shelter, hygiene, and medical care. If New York City cannot force Rikers to meet this low bar of basic human decency and maintain that standard until the planned closing date, the jail should not stay open a day longer."