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

The practice evolved its own kind of slang. Inmates were asked, "Are you with the Program?"—or, in shorthand, "Are you with it?" If the inmate refused, he would be beaten. The beatings were called "spankings."

Prosecutors say McKie and Nelson also developed a series of signals to warn each other that a supervisor was arriving in the unit. They also failed to report assaults, lied in reports they did file, ordered inmates to make false statements, and hid injured inmates in cells to avoid scrutiny from supervisors.

The campaign climaxed on October 18, when several inmates beat Robinson to death after he refused to go along with the Program. Robinson likely bled to death internally over a long period, perhaps 12 hours. One of his ribs pierced his lung, causing the fatal bleeding, sources said.

Robinson might have avoided the fatal beating altogether had the department listened to the recommendation of a deputy warden and transferred the youth into a more secure area, following his involvement in a prior fight. He also might have survived had his injuries been treated in a timely manner. His family has asserted that he sought medical care in the jail's clinic, but was turned away because he did not have a pass.

McKie, Nelson, and a third officer, Denise Albright, pleaded not guilty to gang assault, conspiracy, and corruption in their arraignment last week. They were not charged in Robinson's death.

"This case is a web of lies built by inmates," said McKie's lawyer, Joey Jackson. "My client has a record of unblemished service. He has served with honor and justice. In an effort to save themselves, the inmates are pointing fingers."

Carolyn McKie told the Voice that her son won a basketball scholarship to Buffalo State, but returned home to care for his child. "None of this is true," she said. "He never had a record. What is going on here?"

Norman Seabrook, head of the correction officers' union, said the department was scapegoating the officers to avoid taking responsibility itself. "This is just another case of the department looking to blame someone else for its own mistakes," he told the Voice.

Sidney Schwartzbaum, union leader for deputy wardens and assistant deputy wardens, agreed with Seabrook. "Had they followed the recommendation, we wouldn't even be having this conversation," he said. "My mother used to say what gets done in the dark will come to light, and that will be true in this case as well."

The Robinson case was only the latest example of a problem at RNDC and other jails that the Voice has been following since the summer of 2007.

There was the case of Camillo Douglas and Luis Soriano, two inmates in RNDC, who were assaulted by Bloods members after their cell doors mysteriously opened shortly before 11 p.m. on April 16, 2007. RNDC is the same facility where Christopher Robinson was killed.

Douglas and Soriano both sustained stab wounds and bruising, but they also fought back against their attackers.

The men who assaulted Douglas and Soriano had been part of the "house gang," inmates who were tapped to clean up the facility and were, in return, given extra privileges by the guards. While it has yet to be proven in court, the fact that their cell doors opened when all the other inmates were locked in, just before lights out, suggests there was guard involvement in the assault.

The Voice found other examples that suggested guard involvement in punitive beatings of inmates at RNDC by other inmates.

Paris DeSuze, 18, filed papers with the city, claiming two guards failed to stop inmates from breaking his jaw in three places on April 13, 2007. Afterward, a guard told him to tell investigators that he was injured in a fall.

DeSuze's lawyer, Michael Hueston, told the Voice: "Young people tell me when they go in there, the culture is such that the kids control the jail. The COs know this happens, and they look the other way."

But the case that really should have set off alarm bells in the commissioner's office was the indictment in February 2008 of Correction Officer Lloyd Nicholson, who was accused of using teen inmates in RNDC to target other inmates. He, too, called his operation "The Program." The case allegations mirror the allegations made in the McKie and Nelson indictments.

For example, in both cases, the inmates enforced order and, in exchange, had the officers' permission to extort commissary, telephone privileges, and property from other inmates. And in both cases, the motive was laziness—the inmate gang freed the officers from having to monitor the floor constantly during their shifts.

"Basically, it was like the movie A Few Good Men," a source told the Voice last March. "Either you were in the Program or not. [Nicholson] thought the ones who weren't abiding with the Program were misbehaving, and he used other inmates to discipline them."

If any inmates misbehaved, Nicholson told them, there would be a "moment of truth," where they would be taken into the day room and beaten. He allegedly also told his enforcers to avoid the face because it would leave tell-tale marks—another element which mirrors the McKie indictment.

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