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 fatal beating last month of a teenager on Rikers Island has sparked new fury about how the huge jail complex is operated.
The teen, Christopher Robinson, is believed to have bled to death over a period perhaps stretching to 12 hours, the Voice has learned.
Investigators are probing whether guards caused a lapse in security that let the inmates get to Robinson or even turned a blind eye to the beating, sources say. The incident has sparked a broader probe of whether jail staff are condoning inmate-on-inmate violence in the jail where the teen was killed.
City Correction Commissioner Martin Horn is facing a major test in how he handles the fallout. At the meeting of a jail oversight board last week, Horn provided no details on the incident. However, behind the scenes, jail sources say, the teen's murder has the top brass scrambling.
Robinson, an 18-year-old Brooklyn resident being held on a minor parole violation for missing curfew, was punched, kicked, and stomped to death on October 17 by three other inmates — Bloods gang members — in a wing at the Robert N. Davoren Center (RNDC), the jail where adolescent male offenders are housed, officials and law enforcement sources said.
Some jail officials had urged that, after Robinson had allegedly been involved in an altercation with another inmate, he be placed in a more secure area of the jail, but that request was turned down, allegedly because of a lack of bed space.
Robinson's mother has raised questions about the medical care that her son received — or perhaps more accurately, did not receive — after the beating.
Her threatened lawsuit — which at this early stage is still just a $20 million "notice of claim" against the city — alleges that he sought medical care at the jail infirmary but was turned away because he did not have a pass.
The teen is believed to have bled to death internally after the beating caused one of his ribs to puncture a lung, sources tell the Voice.
The murder has drawn more public attention than any other jail homicide in recent memory — a series of investigations, more than the usual smattering of newspaper articles, a lawsuit, the transfer of three jail bosses, desk duty for several officers, an upcoming city council hearing, and a protest.
"Whether he was or wasn't, it bears no relevance to the fact he was a teenager beaten to death under the supervision of the Department of Correction," says Robinson family lawyer Sanford Rubenstein. "He's still the victim."
Bishop Wilbur Jones, the Robinson family pastor, adds, "There had to be officers who heard his cries from his cell and if it happened in the cell, somebody had to let these inmates in. The Department of Correction failed this man."
The complicity of guards in inmate assaults has been a recurring problem at RNDC and other city jails, as the Voice has reported ("Rikers Island Fight Club). And other violent incidents have sparked continual criticism. (See "A Short Life Ends on Rikers Island, in a Place Where Suicide Isn't Supposed to Happen," May 27, and "Woman-on-Woman Rape Claim at Rikers," August 5.)
Correction records indicate that two days before the fatal assault, a Blood alleged that five inmates, including Robinson attacked him in another housing area at RNDC.
It is unclear what, if any, role Robinson had in that attack, because correction staff did not witness it, the records show. The alleged victim sustained a minor injury — sore ribs.
The victim in the prior assault was transferred to close custody, where inmates are held in 23-hour lockdown ostensibly for their own protection.
But Robinson was transferred to a less secure unit, one for inmates with behavioral problems.
Publicly, the Correction Department has proclaimed faith in its gang-intelligence division's ability to separate inmates who might have a beef with each other.
Robinson was seen alive in his cell at 11:40 a.m. by a guard, records show. Robinson told the guard, according to records compiled by guards, that he wanted to stay in the cell. When the guard returned, Robinson was unconscious on the bed. A review of a Correction Department document obtained by the Voice indicates that there was a gap between the beating and Robinson's treatment, but the precise duration remains unclear.
If Robinson was involved in an altercation with Bloods before he was murdered,it's curious that he was transferred into a housing area dominated by Bloods.
There are only two ways in which Robinson's attackers could have entered his cell without his consent: Either the guards opened the door on purpose, or they left it open long after it should have been closed. The location of guards during the assault remains unclear.
Sidney Schwartzbaum, president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens/Deputy Wardens Association, says that after the earlier incident that may have involved Robinson, a deputy warden at RNDC tried to have Robinson placed in punitive segregation, where no one could have entered his cell.
But the division chief's office denied the request. "He was told there was no room in punitive segregation," Schwartzbaum tells the Voice. "Inmates have been placed in punitive segregation for a lot less. The sad part is that had he been placed in segregation, he probably would be alive today."