Daily incident reports from New York’s Rikers Island jail chronicle a surge of violence and disorder, reports the New York Times. Since New Year's Eve, at least 12 inmates have been slashed or stabbed, eight of them in the face or neck. Inmates and correction officers suffered lacerations, concussions, punctured eardrums, and fractures to noses, eye sockets, jaws and hips. In a recent brawl, a chunk of an inmate's ear was bitten off. The situation mirrors an “epidemic of violence” in big-city jails across the U.S., said Dr. James Gilligan, a clinical professor of psychiatry and co-author of a 2013 report that found the treatment of mentally ill inmates at Rikers Island violated the city's mental health standards.
The mayhem in city jails is striking given the historic declines in rates of homicide and other violent crimes outside them. At the heart of the rising violence is an inmate population that has changed significantly in recent years and has in many ways grown more volatile. Correction officers have struggled with an increasing concentration of mentally ill inmates who experts say often respond defiantly or erratically to the harsh, zero-tolerance disciplinary measures successfully employed in the past. While conditions today are far from the near-anarchy of 20 years ago, the tools used to bring that era of violence under control may now be partly responsible for creating further disorder.