What the Jail Guard Saw

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

In their depositions, the officers named by Cullen and Fisher denied any wrongdoing. One of those officers had 13 previous use-of-force complaints, and the other had been arrested three times and was fired in 2006 for possession of a machine pistol whose serial number had been filed off, records show.

In March, shortly after the Cullen and Fisher depositions, the city agreed to pay $500,000 to settle the lawsuit, but not a single correction officer was disciplined.

The Jackson and Douglas cases only illustrate a broader problem in the jails. According to court records and a law enforcement source, gang members often find their way into unit cleaning crews, where they are able to obtain extra privileges and more authority over other inmates.

"It's a pretty big problem," the law enforcement official says.

"The inmates tell us it's a really common set-up," says Andrew Stoll, a Brooklyn lawyer who represented Jackson. "In a lot of the houses, the correction officers use the house gang as enforcers and pay them with cigarettes and extra commissary."


In a wide-ranging interview on Monday, Commissioner Horn acknowledged that there had been an increase in some indicators in 2006, but he attributed it to a crackdown on illegal drugs and an increase in the use of pepper spray to break up fights. He said that it was "grossly unfair" to suggest that violence is increasing.

"You can't make a judgment [based] on one period of time, which might be a blip or an aberration," Horn says. "Over the long term, the level of violence is coming down."

Horn provided the Voice with statistics showing that some of the indicators that rose in 2006 fell again in the first half of 2007. The DOC is on track, figures show, for just 22 stabbings and slashings this year—the lowest number on record. There were also fewer inmate-on-inmate injury reports in fiscal 2007 than in fiscal 2006.

On the other hand, instances of the use of force remain up, and serious injuries to inmates—a statistical category Horn created—remain about the same as in 2006 and are up compared to 2005.

Horn showed page after page of statistics which he said demonstrate that his administration has made a priority of tracking violent incidents, identifying the causes, and preventing them from happening again.

Under Horn, a small group of the most dangerous inmates have been separated from the jail population and placed in a separate high-security area. He has also tried to control the number of state prisoners transferred to Rikers for court dates and other reasons. And he has improved a security-classification system that tries to protect the majority of the population from the more dangerous offenders. Horn eventually would like to transfer up to 4,000 inmates from Rikers to a renovated jail in Brooklyn and a new facility in the Bronx, because he says the island is the wrong place to house inmates.

Horn pointed out that there hasn't been a murder in the jails in two years (though, as mentioned earlier, two recent deaths are under investigation). There were just two suicides last year, and no escapes. "If it was so bad, they would be killing each other, they would be killing themselves, and there would be escapes," he says. "This is a safe jail system."

Even so, each year, inmates file about 1,300 claims against the city. Over the past five years, the city has paid out $61.7 million to settle Correction Department lawsuits, records show.

No doubt, New York is a litigious city, and inmates are a litigious bunch. Sometimes their allegations strain credulity, like the man who recently claimed that an officer put a gun to his head, even though officers don't carry guns in the jails.

Still, a Voice examination of the 121 claims filed in May alone yields a disturbing snapshot of jail life.

For example, one 18-year-old from Brooklyn, whose family asked that his name be withheld, claims that two correction officers failed to stop other youths from breaking his jaw in three places on April 13 at the Robert N. Davoren Center, where teenage offenders are held. The Brooklyn teen was being held on a drug charge.

image
Tyreece Abney, pictured at left with a family member.
photo: Courtesy of Abney Family
"A [CO] watched the entire assault and never intervened to protect claimant or call for aid," the teenager's claim states.

According to the youth's lawyer, Michael Hueston, a correction officer convinced the 18-year-old to say he'd been dancing on a table and had fallen, even though his injuries didn't match the story.

A responding captain challenged the table-dancing story, and the Brooklyn teenager acknowledged that it was a fabrication, Hueston says. He was eventually taken to Bellevue Hospital, where he underwent surgery for his fractured jaw.

"I didn't even recognize my own son when I saw him in the hospital," Brooklyn social worker Leticia Cumberbatch, 53, tells the Voice. "He made a horrible mistake, but nobody should be treated like that."

Hueston says that such incidents are just part of the landscape. "Young people tell me when they go in there, the culture is such that the kids control the jail," he says. "The COs know this happens, and they look the other way."

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