Roaming Rikers

Stun Shields, Stray Cats, Buck-Fifties, Boofing: The Top Brass’s Tour of America’s Largest Penal Colony

Kerik's monthly meetings formed the centerpiece of his management strategy, a blueprint for leadership that he borrowed from the NYPD. Modeling his program on the NYPD's Compstat, Kerik called his version the "Total Efficiency Accountability Management System," or TEAMS. At these TEAMS meetings, Kerik quizzed wardens on topics ranging from the names of their jails' Latin Kings gang leaders to the temperature of their potato salad. Wardens who didn't have answers sometimes found themselves without jobs.

This morning it was Anthony Serra's turn. Serra, who was then the boss of Rikers' second-oldest jail, the North Infirmary Command, stood stiffly before a microphone in the middle of the packed room. Fraser began the questioning.

"You've had three slashings over the last two months," the chief said to Serra. "Can you tell me about them?"

View through the razor wire: Otis Bantum Correctional Center, home of the Central Punitive Segregation Unit, better known as the Bing
photo: Andrew Lichtenstein
View through the razor wire: Otis Bantum Correctional Center, home of the Central Punitive Segregation Unit, better known as the Bing

"The first incident occurred on May 29, up in housing area 6 South," Serra dutifully reported. "We had an inmate, Hop, who went to retrieve a cup from in front of the television. Other inmates were watching the television. He blocked their view. They got mad at him. They didn't like his response when they confronted him, so they attacked him."

Serra continued his grim recitation, explaining that the second slashing occurred when one prisoner tired of another inmate shaking him down and urged friends to attack his extortionist. In the third incident, a Bloods gang member sliced the follower of a rival gang, the Five Percenters. To prevent further violence, Serra promised to erect more outdoor pens to separate his high-security inmates.

"Overall, you're doing a good job," Fraser said.

"Thank you, sir."

A few years ago, these interrogations didn't always go so smoothly. "I recall times in this agency when I asked [wardens], 'How many inmates do you have in your facility?' " Kerik said later. "And they didn't know. They'd have to get on the phone and call a captain." Such lapses infuriated the commissioner. "I'm not asking about brain surgery," he noted. "I'm asking about your job. You're supposed to know." One warden stumbled so badly that he lost his job before the meeting ended. In this jailhouse version of corporate America, fear is the ultimate management tool, a way for guards to control the prisoners, and for the agency's top officials to control their wardens.

The door to these meetings remained closed to outsiders back when wardens were fumbling basic questions. But today, violence on the island is at an all-time low, the door has swung open, and the parade of visitors is nonstop. Giuliani has sat on the dais next to Kerik. Prison officials from Hawaii, Singapore, and South Africa have observed these meetings. Vladimir Yalunin, who runs Russia's prison system, has visited. And on this morning, a few officials from the New Jersey state prison system filled chairs near the front. Rikers' sheer magnitude and notoriety make it a popular tourist attraction for out-of-town prison officials.

With so many visitors passing through, these question-and-answer sessions seemed to be as much about impressing outsiders as about monitoring wardens. By now, Kerik's managers had learned what questions to expect and usually spat back well-rehearsed responses.

The morning's only nerve-racking moment came shortly after John Basilone, then the warden of the Anna M. Kross Center, stepped behind the podium. With 2305 men in his jail, Basilone supervised a population larger than Maine's entire state prison system. Fraser glanced down at his copy of the wardens' report cards, stapled into a 60-page packet known as the "Primary Indicator Report." There aren't any A's or B's in these report cards, but there are plenty of monthly numbers designed to measure the wardens' performance, from how many of their prisoners escaped or hanged themselves to how many visited a hospital or got caught with a homemade shank.

Fraser grilled Basilone about his slashing statistics, then homed in on the number of times prisoners visited the jail's commissary, the mini-grocery store where popular purchases include Keebler cookies and Newport cigarettes.

"You had 5600 people from January to May go to commissary, and [in June] that figure doubled to 11,792," Fraser said to the warden. "Is that an accurate number? If so, tell me we're not having a riot or something."

"I believe the numbers have—" Basilone stopped. Everyone in the room waited. Finally, Basilone responded. "No, Chief."

"Listen, forget the answer," said Fraser, his voice growing louder and his cheeks redder. "This is something for everyone. When you see spikes [in your numbers] in certain areas, go see what's wrong. A spike in commissary is very critical because it can indicate a number of things, from an inmate strike to an inmate food boycott to a potential disturbance brewing. That's when people stock up on commissary, because they know they ain't going to be leaving their cells to eat."

"We had looked into this," the warden insisted. "We didn't have anyone hoarding."

Fraser wasn't satisfied. "If 11,000 is accurate, then the 5600 number is not a good answer, because that means you didn't have sufficient stock [in the commissary]," the chief said. "You're lucky you didn't have more stabbings and slashings because, if I'm an inmate and I can't get anything, then I'm going to be a little upset. This is serious stuff, guys. Take it serious!"

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