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Shocking images back up what we've been reporting for years: New York City's jails are houses of horror
The Voice has obtained extremely disturbing images from New York City's jail system. These photographs—graphically showing knife wounds and beating injuries to the faces, necks, and arms of inmates—were provided to us by Correction Department sources who want the outside world to know that violence has escalated at Rikers Island.
Four years ago, the Voice first wrote about the violence at Rikers, which was not only condoned but also promoted by jail officials in a disturbing "fight club" that pitted inmates against one another. We were assured by the Correction Department that this practice had stopped, as two jail guards were sent to prison.
Now we have learned that the practice has not stopped.
Some of these images are hard to look at. We know that some readers will object to their being published. But in printing them, the Voice hopes that this time, more officials will take seriously the problem we originally exposed in 2008.
In October 2008, teen inmates beat 18-year-old Christopher Robinson to death as guards looked the other way. The Correction Department launched a major investigation.
The agency interviewed hundreds of teen inmates and concluded that under a practice known as "the Program," guards were deputizing inmates, often in the teen jail, and pitting them against one another in fights as a way to keep order and extort them for phone, food, and television privileges.
In the wake of the scandal, two guards, Khalid Nelson and Michael McKie, were convicted of complicity in the Program and sentenced to short prison terms. A third officer was awaiting sentencing. Twelve inmates were also indicted in the case, with five pleading guilty.
Meanwhile, Correction Department officials claimed they had taken a series of steps that dealt with the problem, including staffing dayrooms with officers and reducing the guard-inmate ratio.
However, several sources, including current and retired investigators, say that the practice is very much still in place, which is backed up by hundreds of internal Correction Department documents obtained by the Voice.
The documents also lay bare the extreme influence that gangs, mostly Bloods, still exert on day-to-day life in the jails—particularly at the Robert N. Davoren Center, where teens are housed and where Robinson was murdered three years ago.
Documents show that inmate leaders known as "the team" control access to the phones; extort phone privileges, commissary allowances, and food from weaker inmates; and even enforce rules on where inmates can sit when watching television in the dayroom. The weakest inmates have to sit on the floor. All of this happens right under the noses of Correction officers.
Violence in the teen jail and in other city jails has also gotten worse, sources say, despite official Correction Department statistics that don't show much of an increase.
And even though the gang-intelligence unit has been a long-standing source of information for both Correction officials and other law-enforcement agencies, the unit has been steadily cut and has seen its tasks limited, gang-intel sources say.
Correction sources lay the blame for the increase in violence at the feet of Commissioner Dora Schriro and Security Deputy Chief Carmine LaBruzzo. Schriro is out of touch, they claim, and LaBruzzo is misleading her about the extent of the violence.
The U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Civil Rights has been investigating violence on Rikers. Correction sources say federal investigators have subpoenaed more than a year's worth of incident reports in the effort. The federal prosecutors office in Manhattan declined to comment.
After the Voice asked for a Correction Department comment on this story, LaBruzzo ordered an effort to find out who was speaking to the media.
"The pictures are brutal, disgusting. These are shocking photos," says Eric Yun, a spokesman for City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who chairs the committee that oversees the jails. "We need to make sure inmates are safe when they are in our jail. You don't want to think that inmates can be at risk like that."
Correction officials acknowledge that inmates fight about three times a day in RNDC, but they strenuously dispute the notion that what happened in the Robinson case, as far as guards actively encouraging "the Program," has continued. (There hasn't been a homicide in RNDC since 2008.)
"Allegations about a 'Program' today are patently false," Correction spokeswoman Sharman Stein says. "Bullying among adolescents occurs in jail as it does in the community. The department has dedicated considerable resources to substantively address this issue. Recent unsubstantiated and anonymous allegations are without merit and serve only to sensationalize the death several years ago of Mr. Robinson, an adolescent inmate at RNDC, while ignoring the significant measures DOC has taken to appreciably improve the conditions of adolescents in detention."
Stein added that Correction Commissioner Schriro is focused on making the teen jail safer, but it is a difficult population to manage. Some 78 percent of teens are charged or sentenced for violent felonies, compared to 38 percent of the general population, and half of teen inmates have been diagnosed with mental illness. Teens make up 6 percent of the population but are involved in 20 percent of fights.
"This is not a department that is looking the other way," Stein says. "This is a department that is doing everything possible. We are trying to do the best that we can do, to try to make changes and make adjustments. We are always involved in bettering what we do."