Rikers Fight Club

After indications for more than a year that guards were using inmates as enforcers, New York's jails are rocked by a pair of indictments

Eighteen months after the Voice first reported cases of jail guards using inmates as enforcers, Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson has made a criminal case that slices to the core of the problem.

The indictment, unsealed January 22, alleges that guards Michael McKie and Khalid Nelson handpicked and oversaw a gang of inmates who beat and terrorized other inmates, and extorted money and privileges from them over a four-month period in a teenage unit at the Robert N. Davoren Center (RNDC), culminating in the murder by inmates of 18-year-old Christopher Robinson on October 18. They called their operation "The Program."

The indictment lists at least seven teenage victims, but there were "scores" more who were victimized, Assistant District Attorney James Goward said at the arraignment two weeks ago. Numerous inmates gave information to investigators to help build evidence that showed a troubling pattern of misconduct right under the noses of jail officials.

"[McKie] was not simply the author of a crime," Goward told a judge. "He was the architect of a criminal enterprise that recruited and trained inmates to inflict violence. They turned jail into almost a nightmare environment."

The blockbuster case forced Correction Commissioner Martin Horn, for the first time, to discuss the issue before the assembled media. But he took a defensive posture, saying that he had no inkling of the problem. "I don't know that any of us believed that anything like this could happen," he told reporters at the Bronx District Attorney's office.

In fact, Horn was well aware of the problem. The Voice had been writing articles on the subject long before Robinson's death. The newspaper first put questions to Horn and his aides about guards deputizing inmates (often members of the Bloods gang) as enforcers in the summer of 2007, and kept writing articles about the problem over the next year and a half—articles that some law enforcement officials credited with placing a public spotlight on the problem.

Even though Horn was receiving information on these incidents during that entire period, it remains unclear whether he did anything to address the problem in the months leading up to the Robinson murder.

It was only after Robinson was killed that he took action: He suspended several officers, transferred several mid-level managers, forced the retirement of a chief, and reshuffled the roles of his senior staff.

Horn told reporters that he installed video cameras in the jails and now has the right to monitor inmates' phone conversations. "We investigate every serious injury," he said, pointing out that the Robinson homicide was the first at Rikers in four years. "We train our officers to maintain a standard of care. If the allegations prove true, these officers have stained the good name of thousands of officers."

Rose Gil Hearn, commissioner of the city Department of Investigation, called the case "the worst" she has ever seen in the jails, and has recommended adding more video cameras and making changes to policies surrounding access to telephones and the commissary.

Horn's spokesman, Stephen Morello, later provided the Voice with a list of things the commissioner has done and is doing to address the problem, including improving the staff-inmate ratio in high-risk teen housing areas to 1 in 25—a move that advocates have been demanding for years.

Morello says Horn has also ordered guards to check inmates' torsos for bruises and other evidence of violence at RNDC. He has expanded a program that provides better training to guards who work with teens—another thing that advocates wanted. And, according to Morello, Horn has ordered staff members to investigate every serious injury, including apparent accidents.

"While one inmate homicide is too many, the NYC jails compare quite favorably with other large city systems on this point," Morello says, citing federal stats that show the homicide rate in the city jails being far better than those of Baltimore, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, or Chicago.

As for Horn's comment in the press conference, Morello tells the Voice that the commissioner "did not say that he was never aware, nor did he claim no prior knowledge of the possibility or even actual allegations" of officers deputizing inmates as enforcers.

"He commented that the nature of the officers' complicity charged in the Robinson indictment and its consequences exceeded any such thing in his experience," Morello says. "In other words, he and we are, of course, aware of prior cases."

According to the indictment, McKie and Nelson handpicked up to 12 inmates to act as enforcers on each of the two wings of the RNDC housing unit known as "One Main."

The enforcers were called "The Team." The guards taught them how to use wrestling holds, like a full nelson, to secure victims during a beating. They told them to punch the torsos of their victims so as not to leave injuries that would be easily seen by other staff. In exchange for performing beatings on their orders, the members of the Team had the right to extort phone privileges and a fixed percentage of the commissary account from the other inmates.

What that meant is that they could use other inmates' phone accounts to make calls, force them to buy snacks for them, get extra food, and even choose where they sat in the day room. The members of the Team also got to roam the units freely, unlike the other inmates, and they had the power to tell inmates whether they were allowed out of their cells and whether they could go to the bathroom.

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