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NYC Jails Boss Faces Tough Questions About Treatment Of Juvenile Inmates On Rikers Island

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) -- In the wake of a scathing federal review of New York City jails, city lawmakers grilled the correction commissioner Wednesday about the treatment of juvenile inmates on Rikers Island.

Councilman Daniel Dromm, D-Queens, fired questions at Commissioner Joseph Ponte about the use of excessive force, specifically so-called "head shots," WCBS 880's Rich Lamb reported.

"What would be an acceptable reason for use of that type of force?" Dromm asked.

Young Inmates, Violence Subject Of Hearing On NYC Jails

"I'm not sure if there's ever an acceptable reason," Ponte responded. "I don't think, if we're doing those things with intent, that that would be appropriate."

But Ponte added the tactic might be a last resort in self-defense.

When the commissioner was asked if he would commit to ruling out head shots in the future, Ponte said that new regulations being written will bar any strike to a vital area.

Before the hearing, Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, D-Queens, who chairs the committee on fire and criminal justice, said the hearing would center on recommendations spelled out in the Justice Department's report on Rikers Island in August.

Among them, the department recommended removing adolescents entirely off of Rikers, the city's giant 10-facility jail complex on the 400-acre island near LaGuardia Airport.

"That report was really alarming and it depicted the levels of violence,'' she said. "While we wait for the state to raise the age of criminality, we must make sure our inmates on Rikers Island are safe.''

The department found that young inmates' constitutional rights were routinely violated, facilities were excessively violent and guards too often used excessive force.

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"As our investigation has shown, for adolescents, Rikers Island is a broken institution," Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement in August. "It is a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort; where verbal insults are repaid with physical injuries; where beatings are routine while accountability is rare; and where a culture of violence endures even while a code of silence prevails."

Last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio called the situation in the city's Correction Department "very bad."

He said his administration inherited "an incredibly problematic situation" and said "It's going to take a lot of work to fix."

NYC Jails Boss Faces Tough Questions About Treatment Of Juvenile Inmates On Rikers Island

"I am clear and sober about the fact that this is a very thorny situation," the mayor said in September. "The way things were done in the past is not a milestone for us or a paradigm for us. We are going to look at this from scratch and do everything we can to fix the situation."

Ponte has vowed to make changes and told council members that work is already underway to improve conditions in the adolescent unit, 1010 WINS' Juliet Papa reported.

"We reduced inmate to staff ratio in our housing areas from 33 to 1 to 15 to 1 as of Sept. 2," Ponte said.

He said he'll end solitary confinement for adolescents by Dec. 31 and said he's looking to move the adolescent unit out of Rikers altogether.

Crowley also asked Ponte if there would be "zero tolerance for unjust use of force" under his administration.

"Absolutely," Ponte replied.

Lawmakers also were expected to hear from a member of the independent board overseeing the jails, a Legal Aid Society attorney, and the head of the correction officers' union.

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