Dodging Soap Bars: How One Man Spent Three Weeks as a Rat on Rikers Island

Rikers Island
Rikers Island
Wikimedia Commons

Anthony Vega hoped to lay low at Rikers Island. He had never been to jail before. He was 40 years old, a Web designer, lived in the Village. He was arrested and booked on Christmas Eve. His boyfriend had told the police that Vega had threatened to hit him, and when the police ran his name they saw that he had an outstanding warrant in Florida on a years-old charge of operating without a real estate license. Because of the warrant, the judge ruled that he would be jailed without bail as he awaited trial.

His attorney suggested he consider taking a plea bargain. He had no previous criminal record. He wouldn't get any jail time. But Vega resisted. He wanted to take the case to trial. His attorney told him that it might be a year before the case went to trial.

Vega was assigned to a minimum-security facility at Rikers. He slept on a bed in a big room filled with 50 or so other beds. He got through his first month quietly. He small-talked with other detainees. His interactions were friendly and unmemorable.

In late January, he made a trade with another detainee. Vega had money in his commissary account and the other man did not. The other man did have a jar of jelly, sent in by a loved one. So Vega traded some snacks from the commissary for the jar of jelly, he says. Vega placed the jar under his bed.

But the man was apparently not satisfied with the deal, according to Vega. The way Vega remembers it, the man approached him as he sat on his bed and began trying to reach for the jar.

"I was blocking him from being able to go under my bed in order to take it," says Vega. "I was sitting on my bed and moving from side to side and he ended up putting me in a chokehold and getting so that his knees were around my head. He got the jar."

Vega wrote what happened on a piece of paper, crumpled it up, and walked toward the bathroom. As he passed a correctional officer stationed at the front of the room, he tossed the paper beside her desk. He knew he had to be inconspicuous. He did not want to be known as a snitch.

When he walked out of the bathroom, he saw the CO reading the note.

"An hour or so later, she whispered, 'Nothing that I can do but pass it off to a captain,' " says Vega.

So Vega spoke with the captain. The captain said that there was nothing he could do, Vega recalls, and that Vega would have to handle the situation himself. "He told me fill up a sock with soap and go beat him up," Vega says.

The next day, Vega realized that other detainees had learned what he did.

"There are people always hanging around by the desk," he says. "All it takes is one person who overhears you."

It started with comments. "We got a rat," he heard a few say as he walked by. Some threw soap chips at him. Then it was whole bars of soap. Some spit on him. Then it was physical abuse. Vega recalls one big guy pinning him down and sitting on him twice. Nobody had his back. Men he had been friendly with gave him the cold shoulder. "All of a sudden they completely turned on me," Vega says.

When Vega had first arrived at Rikers, he had most feared the gang-affiliated detainees. Those were the guys, he had assumed, who would give him trouble, who would target him as a weak link. Now that he actually found himself in trouble, though, Vega noticed that he had gotten it backwards.

"The people who were a part of gangs didn't get involved. What's the point? They were the smartest ones," Vega says. "It was the people who were in there for things not gang-related. They were the handful of troublemakers for me."

The abuse was daily but not nonstop. It would "come on out of nowhere just all of a sudden, and then fizzle down and then come up again," he says.

Vega complained to the guards. He complained to them several times a week. One day, he told a guard and the guard called for everybody's attention. The detainees gathered around.

The guard then "had me stand in the middle of the room and gave a 15-minute monologue talking about rats and what are done to rats, obviously referring to me," says Vega. "It made everybody completely aware of the situation. It also sent a message that you're on your own, a message to the rest that we're not gonna do anything about this."

Rikers officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Vega says that after the announcement, his fellow detainees paid him even more attention. He found his bed wet with urine one day, sticky with toothpaste another. He suffered a third assault, he says.

A week or so after the announcement, in mid February, Vega pleaded guilty to charges of aggravated harassment.

"My decision to plea was the fact that I was gonna be stuck there," he says.

He was sentenced to one year's probation and received a two-year restraining order from his accuser. The charges in Florida were dismissed. He was released from Rikers on February 18.

Send story tips to the author, Albert Samaha



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