Jails Commissioner Finally Confronted by City Council
In the ongoing controversy over the murder of teenager Christopher Robinson at a Rikers Island jail, someone in the City Council finally tried to pin down Correction Commissioner Martin Horn on what he knew, when he knew it, and what he did to stop it.
Robinson was fatally beaten in October at the Robert N. Davoren Center allegedly by a group of teen inmates who had been deputized as enforcers by two guards to control the other inmates in the unit. The guards called their operation, "The Program," and the inmate gang was known as "The Team."
The Voice has been reporting about these types of incidents at RNDC going back to the summer of 2007, including the indictment of Correction officer Lloyd Nicholson on similar charges in February, 2008.
You may recall that at a hearing back in November, shortly after Robinson's death, the Voice reported that the council had been pretty lenient on Horn, barely asking a single relevant question.
In a tense sequence in yesterday's hearing at City Hall, Councilwoman Letitia James pointedly questioned Horn about when he was aware of the practice, and what he did to prevent it in the months prior to the Robinson murder.
Whether she was successful is another matter, but the exchange illustrated how closely the fallout from Robinson's death is being followed.
"When was the first time that you were aware of the 'team,' that corrections officers were using teen inmates?" James asked.
Horn sighed, and said, "You know, it's so hard to answer that question. I've been aware of the possibility of officers colluding for much of my career."
"So there was an ongoing investigation?" James wondered.
"Of what," Horn replied, adding, "There was no specific investigation. There were investigations of individual acts and incidents."
James later asked Horn when was the first time he heard the term "The Program"?
Horn leaned over to speak with a department lawyer, and said, "I am advised by counsel that the matter is subject of litigation and I am not free to answer."
James then asked Horn about what he did following the indictment of Correction Officer Lloyd Nicholson.
Here, Horn replied that a deputy warden had provided information that led to his indictment. He declined to discuss anything more about what he did in the wake of the Nicholson case, citing the ongoing criminal case.
"In so far as the case is in litigation, I am not at liberty to answer these questions," Horn declared.
Despite Horn's unwillingness to admit any responsibility on the part of the department for Robinson's murder and the other prior incidents, he seems to be trying to improve things at RNDC.
In certain units, the guard-inmate ratio has been improved. He pledged to train more officers in the correct way to deal with teen inmates. And, recognizing that the maturity level of a 16-year-old is far different from that of an 18-year-old, Horn said he will arrange inmates at RNDC both by age and by risk of violence.
Lastly, correction officials appear to be trying, within the restrictions of the looming budget crisis, to develop programs that will give teens at RNDC more to do, and prepare them better for life on the outside.
Horn pointedly noted that in 2008 the city council went along with the city's decision to slash funding to a program that helped teens re-enter society after their incarceration.
To this, referring to Mayor Bloomberg's personal wealth. James replied, "Couldn't the mayor fund the program on his own?"
"I don't know what you mean by that," Horn retorted.
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