What the Jail Guard Saw

Rikers officers encourage gang violence: surprising testimony and the stats to back it up

When his cell door abruptly opened just before 11 p.m. on April 16, Camillo Douglas knew he was in trouble.

Moments later, five Bloods gang members burst into the cell at the Robert N. Davoren Center on Rikers Island, beat him with broomsticks and fists, and stabbed him with a metal shank. He suffered a two-inch gash on his scalp, a badly bruised lower back, and other cuts. His T-shirt was soaked with his own blood.

Then the rest of the cell doors opened, a free-for-all quickly ensued, and another inmate was beaten by Douglas's attackers.

photo: Andrew Lichtenstein


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The Bloods were carrying broomsticks because they were members of a cleaning crew—known in Rikers lingo as a "house gang." Douglas's attackers somehow got the correction officers to open his cell door, even though all of the other inmates were already locked into their cells.

"What doesn't make sense to me is how they got into his cell at a time when all the inmates should have been locked in," says his lawyer, Julia Kuan.

In many ways, America's largest jail system—custodian to some 13,900 inmates on an island in the East River—is actually a distant place to most New Yorkers. Ten jails are located on Rikers, a dollop of land connected to the Steinway section of Queens by a bridge that is accessible only by special pass.

For most New Yorkers, Rikers carries deep associations with violent jail culture. But city Correction Department officials insist that such notions are out of date. They point out that since the early '90s, when violent-crime levels were at an all-time high, stabbings and slashings in particular have drastically declined.

In April, for example, the current commissioner, Martin Horn, told the city Board of Correction that there had been over 1,000 such assaults in 1995, but only 37 in fiscal 2006.

"In New York City, the men and women of the Department of Correction have done a remarkable job making the jails safer," Horn told the BOC.

Horn is particularly sensitive to questions about violence at Rikers because he is in the middle of a push to rewrite the rules governing inmate care in the jails. Those rules, known as the Minimum Standards, have remained largely unchanged over the past 30 years. Through the Board of Correction, a tiny oversight agency, Horn has proposed some two dozen changes, including increasing the maximum number of inmates in dorm settings and eliminating a rule that requires him to obtain a warrant to read inmates' mail and listen to inmates' telephone calls.

On April 17, Horn told the board that the changes are necessary to "maintain safety and security."

The current rules "shackle us in our attempt to run safe jails in ways no other jail in the State of New York is restrained," he said.

Some two dozen inmate-advocacy groups and civil rights organizations oppose those changes. Critics argue that they are unfairly restrictive and do nothing to benefit inmates. (Last month, the Board of Correction agreed to put off a decision on the changes until the fall.)

At the center of Horn's appeal to change the way the jails work is his message that today, things are calmer and less violent on Rikers Island.

But the Douglas case and other incidents examined by the Voice seem to present a different reality than that sedate image.

Buried in court records are instances of near-fatal injuries, allegations of excessive force, claims of staff complicity in inmate beatings, and even the story of a correction officer fired after he reported corruption.

In the past few years, the city has been forced to pay millions to dozens of inmates who were seriously injured in the jails. The Correction Department has been obliged to rewrite its use-of-force policy, install video cameras, and create a whole new manual for investigating misconduct.

And at a time when the jail population is stable and well below capacity, and when the city is arguing that the environment at Rikers is placid enough that certain standards should be changed, a Voice review of jail statistics shows that violence actually rose in 2006 compared to the previous year.

  • Class A uses of force—defined as encounters between correction officers and inmates that led to multiple contusions, lacerations, broken bones, or internal injuries—nearly doubled, from 66 to 113.
  • The number of use-of-force injuries jumped by 50 percent—from 1,079 to 1,565. The number of instances in which inmates alleged that correction officers caused their injuries also rose—from 314 to 384.
  • The number of inmates who were treated for injuries caused during encounters with staff also increased—from 1,437 to 2,033.
  • The number of staffers treated following inmate encounters increased, from 861 to 948.
  • The number of inmate weapons found in searches also rose, from 1,830 to 2,174.
  • The number of violent incidents between inmates remained over 8,000 for the third year in a row.
  • The number of stabbings and slashings showed a modest increase, from 35 to 44.
  • The annual amount paid by the city to settle lawsuits rose in each of the past two years, from $8 million to $14.2 million, city comptroller records show.
  • And in May, for the first time in memory, two men died in the jails in one month following the use of force by correction officers. One victim, postal worker Oswald Livermore, died in the Manhattan Tombs, and the second, Jermele Kelly, died in the Bellevue prison ward (see "Deadly Restraint," May 30).

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