By Nate Raymond and Andrew Chung
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Justice plans to sue New York City over widespread violations of the civil rights of teenage inmates at the Rikers Island jail complex, it said on Thursday, raising the prospect of years of federal oversight of the troubled jail.
The move by Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for New York's southern district, followed a report in August that found there was a pattern of violent abuse of 16- to 18-year-old male inmates by guards and by others held at Rikers.
"Today, we have taken a legal step we believe is necessary to ensure that critically important reforms are implemented at Rikers Island," Bharara told reporters at a press conference. "In our view, at the end of the day, there must be a court-ordered agreement."
Bharara is seeking a legal agreement known as a consent decree, which typically also entails the court appointing monitors to oversee that the promised changes are being made, he said.
Only a handful of the country's thousands of jails, prisons and mental hospitals have problems serious enough to warrant the Justice Department's attention each year under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, or CRIPA, under which the lawsuit would be filed.
The statute gives the department the power to carry out a civil investigation into broader systemic problems of inmate abuse, as opposed to a more narrow criminal investigation into misconduct by individual guards and other employees.
The Justice Department, which opened an investigation into the conditions at Rikers in 2012, says the city has allowed guards to routinely batter inmates, sometimes even after the inmates had been cuffed. The department's report also criticized the heavy use of solitary confinement and lack of management oversight, among other complaints.
Bharara's office has been in settlement talks with the city for the last several months and hoped to reach a deal, but court papers filed in federal court in Manhattan Thursday said that "thus far, insufficient progress has been made."
The proposed lawsuit said the problems at Rikers showed "deliberate indifference to the safety and health" of the inmates, many of whom are unconvicted defendants awaiting trial.
Mayor Bill de Blasio's office and the city's Department of Correction, which have not disputed the report's findings, as well as the city's powerful jail guard's union did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The mayor, who took office in January and has repeatedly said conditions at Rikers are deplorable, announced an end to the practice of solitary confinement during a visit to the jail on Wednesday.
If other large urban prisons investigated by the Justice Department are any guide, New York City may only be at the start of a protracted process.
The Los Angeles County Jail has been struggling to address the findings of a CRIPA investigation for 12 years, according to the Justice Department.
Officials overseeing the Cook County Jail in Chicago signed a consent decree with the Justice Department in 2010, and four court-appointed monitors have overseen the jail since then.
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Bernadette Baum)