Rikers Fight Club: The Knockout Punch

Documents show that top officials in the city's jail system were regularly briefed on violence and extortion between teen inmates.

For a year prior to the murder of 18-year-old Christopher Robinson on Rikers Island, the second and third highest officials in the city Correction Department had been receiving regular intelligence reports about gang violence and extortion—some of it encouraged by correction officers—in the jail for teenagers, documents obtained by the Voice show.

In weekly meetings and in monthly reports, the Chief of Department Carolyn Thomas and Chief of Facility Operations Patrick Walsh were briefed repeatedly about an alarming series of fights, assaults, and serious injuries connected with gang members controlling the phones, commissary, and access throughout the Robert N. Davoren Center, Correction Department sources say and records show.

The violence climaxed in October when a gang of inmates beat Robinson to death. Three correction officers have been indicted for organizing a "team," inmates who carried out punishment beatings of other inmates, over a four-month period, in the unit where Robinson died. The officers trained the inmates to use wrestling holds and punch and kick their victims in the torso, where the injuries would be hidden by clothing, the indictment alleges.

At the officers' behest, the "team" would ask inmates whether they were "with it." If the inmates said no, they were beaten. In exchange, the indictment says, the inmates were allowed free rein to extort phone, food, and access privileges from other inmates.

Just one month prior to Robinson's murder, an 18-year-old inmate named Alicedes Polance suffered a broken eye socket in a beating by a "team" of inmates in the same unit while those same indicted officers were on duty, records show. Polance's attackers beat him after he said no to the question, "Are you down with it?" In the aftermath, however, DOC officials failed to uncover the alleged scheme in time to prevent the fatal Robinson assault.

In the first 10 months of 2008, 39 inmates at RNDC suffered serious facial injuries—broken noses, broken jaws, or fractured eye sockets, records show. Twenty-eight of those inmates were teenagers. Twenty of those cases directly involved gang inmates attempting to control or extort other inmates.

Again and again, the ominous question, "Are you with it?" appears in the reports. On March 23, 2008, an 18-year-old inmate was asked, "Are you with it?" before his orbital was broken. A fight on May 19, which led to a broken nose, had "earmarks of control," a report says.

The investigation into an assault on May 3, which led to a broken jaw, found allegations that an inmate was extorting all new inmates. An attack on June 15, which led to a fractured nose and eye socket, was sparked after the victim was asked, "Are you with it?"

The investigation into a June 26 fight that resulted in a broken eye socket determined that one inmate got to use the phone all the time, while the 16-year-old victim never did. An inmate who suffered a broken jaw on July 15 was told that only Bloods gang members used the phone.

Moreover, on 40 occasions between July 1 and October 31, guards ordered unit lockdowns because of violence sparked by extortion or attempts to control the phones, commissary, and access. That's one every three days.

On July 14, for example, three inmates told a fourth that he was not allowed to use the phone at 9 p.m. The inmate refused to comply and was beaten. An inmate alleged on July 15 that three inmates told him that they run the house and refused to allow him to use the phone on certain days. On July 18, an inmate was assaulted after he told others that he was not "with it." On July 31, an inmate was beaten after he refused to be "with it."

The list goes on and on.

For some perspective on the numbers, the Voice contacted Steve J. Martin, a consultant on the use of force in jails who is based in Austin, Texas.

Martin says 39 fractures in a 10-month period is off the charts: "That's an extremely high number any way you cut it," he says. "It's evidence that there's something incredibly wrong in that institution."

Martin says he recently studied a jail system in which just one fracture was recorded over a six-month period. "If you're having more than one or two fractures in any 30-day period, you should be bringing in major oversight," he says. "You should be all over it."

In addition to the drumbeat of broken bones, correction officials had also seen a number of newspaper articles, including stories by the Voice, suggesting that there was a problem in RNDC, dating back to the summer of 2007.

And the department had already been embarrassed by the indictment in February 2008 of Lloyd Nicholson, a correction officer who also used inmates as enforcers at RNDC. He called his operation "The Program."

Every Friday, Walsh met with intelligence division investigators and wardens to discuss issues at individual jails. Time and again, investigators highlighted the incidents at RNDC involving extortion by gang inmates or attempts to control privileges, and suggested that a disturbing trend was developing, three correction sources said.

But Walsh, the sources say, treated each incident as isolated and failed to act on the overall problem. He merely ordered the attackers to be transferred and handed out infractions. He also treated stabbing and slashing incidents with much more seriousness than the broken bones. And few of the assault cases resulted in criminal charges.

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