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New York Corrections Officers Convicted In Inmate Assault

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

At New York City's jail complex on Rikers Island, lots of inmates have accused guards of abuse. Earlier this week, five high-ranking corrections officers were actually convicted of severely beating a prisoner. Darcel Clark, the new district attorney for the Bronx, has made prosecuting violence at Rikers a priority and joins us now. Welcome to the program.

DARCEL CLARK: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Put these convictions in context for us. How unusual are they.

CLARK: Well, they are pretty unusual. It's, you know - normally it's very difficult to get convictions in these types of cases because of who our witnesses are. Normally you're talking about convicts or defendant, people who are accused of crimes who are in jail, and they sometimes don't have the best credibility with the juries. So it's become particularly difficult at times to get convictions on cases like these.

SHAPIRO: Do you think that these convictions will make a larger difference in the culture at Rikers?

CLARK: I think it's a beginning. I think that it sends a message to the officers as well as the inmates who are victims or inmates who prey on officers or staff that there's a district attorney who's very serious about prosecution of crimes that happen on Rikers Island. It is a priority. It was part of my campaign. I promised this to the people of Bronx County, and I'm trying to live up to it as best as possible.

SHAPIRO: I'm curious as to what the people of Bronx County feel about this because making violence in a prison a priority does not change the outlook for safety on the streets.

CLARK: Well, the members of the Bronx have family members there that either work there - they visit, as well as they have members of their family and residents of the Bronx who are inmates in Rikers Island. So it touches the community outside the walls of Rikers Island.

So it's important that they know that it's a safe place to work, and it has to be a safe place for those inmates who are there. They have to be treated humanely even if they are accused of a crime.

SHAPIRO: Is there a risk that these convictions could make the pendulum swing too far in the opposite direction and that guards will be afraid to do the things they need to do to maintain order and safety at the prison?

CLARK: No. My focus is not only on the public integrity or corruption side but also the violence that is being committed by the inmates. It's almost like a vicious cycle. These inmates are wreaking havoc in the jail, assaulting officers and staff members, and they need to be prosecuted for those cases as well.

So although they're there for underlying crime from within 1 of the 5 boroughs, when they commit a crime on Rikers Island, it is my jurisdiction. And I'm making it very clear to them that not only am I going to prosecute them but, when the cases go to trial, that I'm going to ask for consecutive jail time.

SHAPIRO: How would you describe conditions at Rikers right now compared to where you think it ought to be?

CLARK: Well, it's out of control. It needs to be fixed. The violence is, you know, out of control, and I need to do all that I can to restore law and order there for everyone who has to be there.

SHAPIRO: Is this the sort of thing that's going to take months, years, a decade?

CLARK: Well, it's not going to happen overnight. But in partnership with a number of stakeholders and talking about the Commission of Corrections - we're talking about the union. We're talking about the staff unions as well, inmate prison advocates, defense bar, the city. All of us have to sit down and really talk about the real reforms that need to happen at Rikers Island, and we've already started having those dialogs and meetings.

SHAPIRO: Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, thank you for your time.

CLARK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.