What the Jail Guard Saw

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

More than a month later, the city medical examiner has yet to issue a cause of death in either case, but the deaths are the subject of separate investigations by the Manhattan District Attorney's office and the Correction Department's inspector general.

In his own written analysis of jail statistics, John Boston, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society's Prisoners' Rights Project, found that inmate fights and assaults, uses of force, and inmate injuries from uses of force have all increased. He also reported that stabbings and slashings are up in fiscal 2007.

"Stabbings and slashings are only a small slice of violence in the jails, and their relatively low frequency says more about the department's efforts to find and remove weapons than about the overall rate of violence and tension in the jails," Boston wrote.

photo: Andrew Lichtenstein


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"By reasonable measures, the jails are getting more violent despite efforts to control violence," he added.

Within the Correction Department, the talk often turns to the bad old days of the early 1990s, when the jails were bursting at the seams and crime was skyrocketing.

"What's going on now pales in comparison to the late 1980s and early 1990s in terms of violence," says Sidney Schwartzbaum, president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens/Deputy Wardens Association. "I remember periods where we had 50 to 60 slashings in one month in just one facility."

City Correction Commissioner Martin Horn denies that violence is increasing and says that he views inmate safety as the most important aspect of his job. "We believe that an inmate should be treated as if they were one of our own children."

But a veteran DOC supervisor says the 2006 increase is still troubling. "It's indicative of less control on the part of DOC staff," the supervisor says. "When inmates make more weapons, it means they don't feel safe. When officers use force more, it means they don't feel safe."

Last January, a former correction officer named Roger Cullen sat down and gave an astonishing sworn deposition in a lawsuit over a little-known May 2003 inmate assault at the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers.

Cullen was the "bubble" officer—working in an enclosed security room overlooking the mental-observation ward—when Kirk Fisher walked up to fellow inmate Donald Jackson and punched him once in the head.

Jackson dropped like a stone. His head struck a piece of metal sticking out of the floor. He developed a blood clot in his brain, and would have died had it not been for an operation he received at the Elmhurst Hospital Center. Fisher was sentenced to state prison for the assault. The Correction Department's investigation concluded at the time that the fight was over stolen cookies and found "no misconduct or wrongdoing" by staff.

But Cullen, whose deposition was obtained by the Voice, testified that Fisher had essentially been deputized as an enforcer by correction officers to control the other inmates—a violation of DOC rules. Fisher told them when to shower, when to lock in, and when to clean their cells.

"It was like he was in charge," Cullen said.

"Any officer knows you're not supposed to do that—it's wrong," he added.

Cullen also testified that another guard was off his post, talking with a female officer, when the assault took place. That officer made a false entry in a logbook and then asked Cullen to write a report that claimed Jackson had slipped and fallen in the shower, Cullen testified.

"I told him, 'I'm not going to do that,' " Cullen said.

Cullen testified that in the months after the Jackson incident, he made a series of corruption allegations to DOC officials and the Department of Investigation, but nothing was done. Among his claims, Cullen discussed a practice called "write with us," in which correction officers conspired to make false reports on incidents involving inmates.

"It's just lies, coordinated lies," he said.

Cullen also testified that correction officers felt it was easier to mistreat inmates in the mental-observation unit because no one would believe them.

"They will say, 'Oh, he's crazy' and dismiss it, and the officer gets away with abuse," he said.

Cullen said that he made the complaints because "I was in a state of shock. This is the Department of Correction. What is this stuff going on? Isn't somebody watching these people? Why are you letting them do this and still have a job?"

Records obtained by the Voice indicate that Cullen first made written allegations of corruption at the Anna M. Kross Center a few months after the Jackson incident. But no one investigated those allegations for more than a year, and by then Cullen had been fired.

In September 2003, records show, Cullen sent a letter to the DOC's Investigation Division laden with specific misconduct allegations against several officers, including the officers in the Jackson case.

Cullen's letter named five officers and alleged that they were involved in misconduct ranging from using excessive force to lying, to falsifying reports, to paying inmates with cigarettes to beat up other inmates. Cullen also named six inmates who had been beaten up by the officers. But the final DOC report on the Jackson incident contained no mention of his allegations.

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