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.

"He used a Band-Aid approach," a senior correction official says. "They would deal with the incident, but not see the big picture: that it was widespread throughout the jail. No one questioned what actions the COs took."

Meanwhile, the serious injury reports were coming across Chief of Department Carolyn Thomas's desk, one after another, but it remains unclear whether she did anything to specifically address the problem. And it remains unclear whether DOC Commissioner Martin Horn himself saw the injury reports or was briefed on them.

The sheer volume of serious injury reports raises new questions about exactly what top correction officials did to prevent violence and inmate extortion at RNDC.

"They failed to address the culture of the adolescent housing areas," a senior correction official tells the Voice. "They needed to break that culture and make this kind of thing unacceptable, but no one put it together. It's all on management and a lack of leadership."

In a lengthy response to Voice questions, Correction Department spokesman Stephen Morello insisted that Commissioner Horn not only publicly identified the problem in 2007, but initiated some two dozen system-wide policy changes and new programs to address it.

Morello said that many of the policy changes Horn advocated in 2007 in testimony to the city Board of Correction—including the right to monitor inmates' phone conversations—were designed to combat problems like inmate extortion and bullying.

"The list of actions we have taken both prior to and since Robinson includes plenty of steps the department has taken to address violence, including, specifically, in adolescent housing units," Morello wrote in response to a Voice query.

Morello cited department statistics, which he said show that serious injuries among teens at RNDC was steady at 32 per year from 2005 to 2007, and declined to 27 in 2008. He noted that the Robinson murder was the first in the city jail system in four years.

Morello also attacked the Voice's reporting on the subject, suggesting that this newspaper and other media were being unfair to the commissioner.

The spokesman did not directly answer a range of questions, including whether Horn assigned more staff to RNDC, whether correction staffers were told not to tolerate extortion, whether inmates were told that such behavior would not be tolerated, or whether they ordered a crackdown on such behavior prior to Robinson's death. Morello refused to address questions regarding Walsh and Thomas.

At RNDC, Morello listed 32 changes that he says address the problem.

A Voice review and discussion with correction sources indicate that many of them were done following the Robinson murder, not before. Indeed, it was only after Robinson's death that Walsh ordered a broader review of the incidents, which resulted in a report, obtained by the Voice, that detailed the problem. This report, completed four days after Robinson's murder, disclosed information that could have been learned at any point in the preceding 18 months: There was a specific five-tier hierarchy to the extortion scheme, ranging from the bottom tier of inmates who were "with it" to the top tier of the "team." The setup resembled something out of the world of organized crime. The hierarchy existed throughout RNDC, the report also revealed. Despite the warnings, correction sources say, some investigators have themselves been questioned about what they said about the problem, in what appears to some as an effort to essentially kill messengers who first sounded alarm bells.

When officers Michael McKie and Khalid Nelson were indicted last month, correction officials insisted that guard complicity in the beatings was limited to one RNDC unit, 1 Main, and they claimed they could never visualize a worse case.

But statements from some 300 inmate interviews conducted after Robinson's death indicate that "teams" were common in RNDC. Beatings by those teams were also common. One after another, dozens of inmates said they heard the phrase, "Are you with it?" and heard of the "team" or "The Program."

Twenty inmates claimed that they were part of a team. Forty-six inmates said members of a "team" beat them at one point or another. And at least four inmates claimed that guards were complicit in other units. One of those inmates gave the following detailed account of the atmosphere under McKie and Nelson in 1 Main: "Most of the problems started with the CO," he said. "He would open the cell while you were sleeping, and he would let the team come in your cell. The team would put you in a chicken-wing position and they would beat you."

The same inmate talked of a similar setup in a different RNDC unit: "When I was housed in 5 Main, the officer would ask you if you were 'with it.' If you were not, he would lock everyone in and let the team out, and he would watch the team beat you. He used to like watching inmates beat me up because I never fought back. This happened two months ago, and he still calls me a pussy when he sees me."

The violence creates a pervasive atmosphere of fear, says Martin, the correction consultant. "Whether you're talking about a vulnerable youth or a tough youth, every kind of behavior is dominated by the fear factor," he says.

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