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

One of the inmates suffered a collapsed lung, but 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.

Nicholson also allegedly beat an inmate himself. "He both watched and participated," a prosecutor said during the arraignment.

Last week, officials said Nicholson worked in another unit and was not connected to the McKie operation. In addition, Horn told reporters that when McKie and Nelson were not working, the practice did not extend to other officers. But some jail observers were skeptical of this claim, saying it had to be more than coincidental that both operations were called "The Program."

"What they are saying is that One Main was a vacuum, which doesn't make a lot of sense," a correction source said.

Housing units typically include two hallways with about 30 cells each, with a "bubble" or glassed-in observation booth at the hub with a day room and television on either side. Three officers control security in these units—one on the left wing, one on the right wing, and one in the bubble. There are three officers per shift, so at least nine officers cycle through the unit on any given day. In addition, the unit is visited once or twice per shift by a captain. On top of that, assistant deputy wardens and other higher-level supervisors might pass through.

What that means is that on any day, at least 18 correction employees might come through a unit. So it seems unlikely that no one other than the three implicated guards would be aware of the Program.

"It's tragic that it took the death of an 18-year-old to bring to light this terrible scheme, but it has to be asked whether it was more extensive," said the Robinson family lawyer, Sanford Rubenstein. "Someone in a position of power and authority should investigate it."

Even the New York Post, which rarely devotes much space to jail incidents, wrote an editorial expressing doubt that the operation was limited to just three guards. The editorial pressed officials to continue their investigation: "How could only three guards organize such an operation—with at least 12 inmates involved—without more people knowing what was going on?" wondered the Post's editorial board. "It defies credulity to assume that this is all that was going on."

And there were examples of the problem in other facilities dating all the way back to 2004, with the fatal beating of Tyreece Abney, 21, who was the last inmate murdered in the jail system before Robinson.

Abney, a mentally disabled man who probably never should have been in general population, was stomped to death in the George Motchan Detention Center by Bloods members after he had a loud argument with a correction officer. About 30 minutes before the fatal assault, a guard told the inmates in his unit: "You men in the house, you need to speak to the new inmates—you need to get your house in order," court testimony showed. Shortly thereafter, three inmates cornered Abney and attacked him, with one inmate saying he better "fly right."

During the investigation, authorities learned that one of Abney's assailants had been receiving extra phone and mail privileges from a correction officer.

In March 2007, the city agreed to pay $500,000 to settle a lawsuit involving a near-fatal assault by the leader of a "house gang." Inmate Kirk Fisher hit Donald Jackson, and Jackson fell, his head striking a piece of protruding metal in the floor. Jackson almost died. Fisher later testified that a correction officer told him to assault Jackson. "Before you do anything [he said], I'm going to go to the other side, and do what you got to do," the guard told Fisher, according to Fisher's deposition.

Describing his duties, Fisher said, "It was my job to enforce certain rules. Anybody that acted up in the house, it was my job to put them in line."

"The inmates tell us it's a really common setup," said Jackson's lawyer, Andrew Stoll, in the Voice's 2007 article on the case. "In a lot of the houses, the correction officers use the house gang as enforcers and pay them with cigarettes and extra commissary."

During the course of the Jackson case, Stoll was able to track down a former correction officer, Roger Cullen, who was on duty at the time of the assault. In his deposition, Cullen confirmed Fisher's claim: "It was like he was in charge," Cullen said in sworn testimony. "Any officer knows you're not supposed to do that. It's wrong."

Cullen was fired before he could be vested as a correction officer. As he told the Voice in 2007, he blamed the firing on his efforts to report corruption in the jail. The department investigated his claims, but in a cursory manner, and closed the case without taking action. "I tried to do the right thing," Cullen said in his deposition.

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