By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The indictment last month of a city correction officer for using inmates to enforce discipline on his floor recalled the revelations contained in a Voice investigation from last summer.
When the Voice first disclosed that guards at Rikers Island were encouraging inmates to attack other inmates to enforce rules, correction officials insisted that such a thing was rare to nonexistent. They also attacked the credibility of a former correction officer who had been fired after reporting such misconduct and who had come forward to tell the Voice about the practice.
That case involved a 2005 beating by inmate Donald Jackson of another inmate who sustained serious head injuries. The injured man later won a $500,000 settlement from the city. Jackson, who was sent to prison for the assault, testified that the beating was instigated on the orders of a correction officer who was irked with an unruly inmate. The former officer has filed a lawsuit that cites the Voice article.
The Nicholson case is even more troubling than the Jackson case because Nicholson, a seven-year veteran of the jails, allegedly used a select group of teenage inmates as enforcers under a regimen he called "the program," sources said.
"Basically, it was like the movie A Few Good Men," a source told the Voice. "Either you were in the program or not. He thought the ones who weren't abiding with the program were misbehaving, and he used other inmates to discipline them."
The holding area was a dorm-style facility. Nicholson told the inmates that he wanted no trouble during his shift. He didn't want anyone getting out of bed, for example. If any inmates misbehaved, he told them, there would be a "moment of truth" where they would be taken into the day room and beaten.
According to the indictment, Nicholson, who was in charge of 50 offenders younger than 21, turned to an accused murderer, a 19-year-old youth charged with robbery and sexual assault, and four other accused felons and ordered them to beat up two other inmates on June 10 of last year. The incident took place right around the time that correction officials were saying such things never happen.
On the night in question, sources said, two inmates refused to follow the rules. Nicholson ordered his crew to beat them up. He told them, sources said, to avoid hitting the inmates in the face because it would leave tell-tale marks.
One of the inmates suffered a collapsed lung, but he was denied medical treatment for several hours until he was finally transported to Elmhurst Hospital. He barely survived the assault, prosecutors said in court.
Sources said Nicholson tried to delay reporting the injury until the next shift, but he finally relented when one of the inmates told him the injured youth desperately needed medical attention. Nicholson, the sources said, also told the inmates he would try to get the blame for the injuries pinned on them.
"Some of you are going to go down for this," he told them, sources said.
Between May 18 and May 25, Nicholson beat an inmate himself, using a "wooden stick," probably a broom or mop handle, the indictment says.
"He both watched and participated," a prosecutor said during the arraignment.
Nicholson is charged with gang assault, assault in the second and third degrees, and official misconduct. He faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.
His attorney, Peter Troxler, declined to comment, saying it was too early to make any statement on the charges.
Nicholson's children and two adult relatives were present for his arraignment in Bronx court. One relative told the Voice: "He had nothing to do with this."
The six inmates allegedly involved in the June 10 incident have already been indicted on gang assault charges.
"What pisses me off is, they're charged, but what were they supposed to do?" said a lawyer close to the case. "They're in jail, and a correction officer is ordering them to do this."
The gang, prosecutors say, allegedly allowed Nicholson to avoid constantly having to monitor the floor during his overnight shift.
Prosecutors say Nicholson ran a "systematic program" of using inmates to enforce order under rules of conduct that he made up. In exchange, he gave them permission to extort commissary, telephone privileges, and property from other inmates.
Stephen Morello, a spokesman for the Department of Correction, says: "We believe that such behavior by our correction officers is very infrequent."