Rikers Fight Club
Eighteen months after the Voice first reported cases of jail guards using inmates as enforcers, Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson has made a criminal case that slices to the core of the problem.
The indictment, unsealed January 22, alleges that guards Michael McKie and Khalid Nelson handpicked and oversaw a gang of inmates who beat and terrorized other inmates, and extorted money and privileges from them over a four-month period in a teenage unit at the Robert N. Davoren Center (RNDC), culminating in the murder by inmates of 18-year-old Christopher Robinson on October 18. They called their operation "The Program."
The indictment lists at least seven teenage victims, but there were "scores" more who were victimized, Assistant District Attorney James Goward said at the arraignment two weeks ago. Numerous inmates gave information to investigators to help build evidence that showed a troubling pattern of misconduct right under the noses of jail officials.
"[McKie] was not simply the author of a crime," Goward told a judge. "He was the architect of a criminal enterprise that recruited and trained inmates to inflict violence. They turned jail into almost a nightmare environment."
The blockbuster case forced Correction Commissioner Martin Horn, for the first time, to discuss the issue before the assembled media. But he took a defensive posture, saying that he had no inkling of the problem. "I don't know that any of us believed that anything like this could happen," he told reporters at the Bronx District Attorney's office.
In fact, Horn was well aware of the problem. The Voice had been writing articles on the subject long before Robinson's death. The newspaper first put questions to Horn and his aides about guards deputizing inmates (often members of the Bloods gang) as enforcers in the summer of 2007, and kept writing articles about the problem over the next year and a half—articles that some law enforcement officials credited with placing a public spotlight on the problem.
Even though Horn was receiving information on these incidents during that entire period, it remains unclear whether he did anything to address the problem in the months leading up to the Robinson murder.
It was only after Robinson was killed that he took action: He suspended several officers, transferred several mid-level managers, forced the retirement of a chief, and reshuffled the roles of his senior staff.
Horn told reporters that he installed video cameras in the jails and now has the right to monitor inmates' phone conversations. "We investigate every serious injury," he said, pointing out that the Robinson homicide was the first at Rikers in four years. "We train our officers to maintain a standard of care. If the allegations prove true, these officers have stained the good name of thousands of officers."
Rose Gil Hearn, commissioner of the city Department of Investigation, called the case "the worst" she has ever seen in the jails, and has recommended adding more video cameras and making changes to policies surrounding access to telephones and the commissary.
Horn's spokesman, Stephen Morello, later provided the Voice with a list of things the commissioner has done and is doing to address the problem, including improving the staff-inmate ratio in high-risk teen housing areas to 1 in 25—a move that advocates have been demanding for years.
Morello says Horn has also ordered guards to check inmates' torsos for bruises and other evidence of violence at RNDC. He has expanded a program that provides better training to guards who work with teens—another thing that advocates wanted. And, according to Morello, Horn has ordered staff members to investigate every serious injury, including apparent accidents.
"While one inmate homicide is too many, the NYC jails compare quite favorably with other large city systems on this point," Morello says, citing federal stats that show the homicide rate in the city jails being far better than those of Baltimore, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, or Chicago.
As for Horn's comment in the press conference, Morello tells the Voice that the commissioner "did not say that he was never aware, nor did he claim no prior knowledge of the possibility or even actual allegations" of officers deputizing inmates as enforcers.
"He commented that the nature of the officers' complicity charged in the Robinson indictment and its consequences exceeded any such thing in his experience," Morello says. "In other words, he and we are, of course, aware of prior cases."
According to the indictment, McKie and Nelson handpicked up to 12 inmates to act as enforcers on each of the two wings of the RNDC housing unit known as "One Main."
The enforcers were called "The Team." The guards taught them how to use wrestling holds, like a full nelson, to secure victims during a beating. They told them to punch the torsos of their victims so as not to leave injuries that would be easily seen by other staff. In exchange for performing beatings on their orders, the members of the Team had the right to extort phone privileges and a fixed percentage of the commissary account from the other inmates.
What that meant is that they could use other inmates' phone accounts to make calls, force them to buy snacks for them, get extra food, and even choose where they sat in the day room. The members of the Team also got to roam the units freely, unlike the other inmates, and they had the power to tell inmates whether they were allowed out of their cells and whether they could go to the bathroom.
The practice evolved its own kind of slang. Inmates were asked, "Are you with the Program?"—or, in shorthand, "Are you with it?" If the inmate refused, he would be beaten. The beatings were called "spankings."
Prosecutors say McKie and Nelson also developed a series of signals to warn each other that a supervisor was arriving in the unit. They also failed to report assaults, lied in reports they did file, ordered inmates to make false statements, and hid injured inmates in cells to avoid scrutiny from supervisors.
The campaign climaxed on October 18, when several inmates beat Robinson to death after he refused to go along with the Program. Robinson likely bled to death internally over a long period, perhaps 12 hours. One of his ribs pierced his lung, causing the fatal bleeding, sources said.
Robinson might have avoided the fatal beating altogether had the department listened to the recommendation of a deputy warden and transferred the youth into a more secure area, following his involvement in a prior fight. He also might have survived had his injuries been treated in a timely manner. His family has asserted that he sought medical care in the jail's clinic, but was turned away because he did not have a pass.
McKie, Nelson, and a third officer, Denise Albright, pleaded not guilty to gang assault, conspiracy, and corruption in their arraignment last week. They were not charged in Robinson's death.
"This case is a web of lies built by inmates," said McKie's lawyer, Joey Jackson. "My client has a record of unblemished service. He has served with honor and justice. In an effort to save themselves, the inmates are pointing fingers."
Carolyn McKie told the Voice that her son won a basketball scholarship to Buffalo State, but returned home to care for his child. "None of this is true," she said. "He never had a record. What is going on here?"
Norman Seabrook, head of the correction officers' union, said the department was scapegoating the officers to avoid taking responsibility itself. "This is just another case of the department looking to blame someone else for its own mistakes," he told the Voice.
Sidney Schwartzbaum, union leader for deputy wardens and assistant deputy wardens, agreed with Seabrook. "Had they followed the recommendation, we wouldn't even be having this conversation," he said. "My mother used to say what gets done in the dark will come to light, and that will be true in this case as well."
The Robinson case was only the latest example of a problem at RNDC and other jails that the Voice has been following since the summer of 2007.
There was the case of Camillo Douglas and Luis Soriano, two inmates in RNDC, who were assaulted by Bloods members after their cell doors mysteriously opened shortly before 11 p.m. on April 16, 2007. RNDC is the same facility where Christopher Robinson was killed.
Douglas and Soriano both sustained stab wounds and bruising, but they also fought back against their attackers.
The men who assaulted Douglas and Soriano had been part of the "house gang," inmates who were tapped to clean up the facility and were, in return, given extra privileges by the guards. While it has yet to be proven in court, the fact that their cell doors opened when all the other inmates were locked in, just before lights out, suggests there was guard involvement in the assault.
The Voice found other examples that suggested guard involvement in punitive beatings of inmates at RNDC by other inmates.
Paris DeSuze, 18, filed papers with the city, claiming two guards failed to stop inmates from breaking his jaw in three places on April 13, 2007. Afterward, a guard told him to tell investigators that he was injured in a fall.
DeSuze's lawyer, Michael Hueston, told the Voice: "Young people tell me when they go in there, the culture is such that the kids control the jail. The COs know this happens, and they look the other way."
But the case that really should have set off alarm bells in the commissioner's office was the indictment in February 2008 of Correction Officer Lloyd Nicholson, who was accused of using teen inmates in RNDC to target other inmates. He, too, called his operation "The Program." The case allegations mirror the allegations made in the McKie and Nelson indictments.
For example, in both cases, the inmates enforced order and, in exchange, had the officers' permission to extort commissary, telephone privileges, and property from other inmates. And in both cases, the motive was laziness—the inmate gang freed the officers from having to monitor the floor constantly during their shifts.
"Basically, it was like the movie A Few Good Men," a source told the Voice last March. "Either you were in the Program or not. [Nicholson] thought the ones who weren't abiding with the Program were misbehaving, and he used other inmates to discipline them."
If any inmates misbehaved, Nicholson told them, there would be a "moment of truth," where they would be taken into the day room and beaten. He allegedly also told his enforcers to avoid the face because it would leave tell-tale marks—another element which mirrors the McKie indictment.
One of the inmates suffered a collapsed lung, but was denied medical treatment for several hours, until he was finally transported to Elmhurst Hospital. He barely survived the assault, prosecutors said in court.
Sources said Nicholson tried to delay reporting the injury until the next shift, but he finally relented when one of the inmates told him the injured youth desperately needed medical attention. Nicholson, the sources said, also told the inmates he would try to get the blame for the injuries pinned on them. "Some of you are going to go down for this," he told them, sources said.
Nicholson also allegedly beat an inmate himself. "He both watched and participated," a prosecutor said during the arraignment.
Last week, officials said Nicholson worked in another unit and was not connected to the McKie operation. In addition, Horn told reporters that when McKie and Nelson were not working, the practice did not extend to other officers. But some jail observers were skeptical of this claim, saying it had to be more than coincidental that both operations were called "The Program."
"What they are saying is that One Main was a vacuum, which doesn't make a lot of sense," a correction source said.
Housing units typically include two hallways with about 30 cells each, with a "bubble" or glassed-in observation booth at the hub with a day room and television on either side. Three officers control security in these units—one on the left wing, one on the right wing, and one in the bubble. There are three officers per shift, so at least nine officers cycle through the unit on any given day. In addition, the unit is visited once or twice per shift by a captain. On top of that, assistant deputy wardens and other higher-level supervisors might pass through.
What that means is that on any day, at least 18 correction employees might come through a unit. So it seems unlikely that no one other than the three implicated guards would be aware of the Program.
"It's tragic that it took the death of an 18-year-old to bring to light this terrible scheme, but it has to be asked whether it was more extensive," said the Robinson family lawyer, Sanford Rubenstein. "Someone in a position of power and authority should investigate it."
Even the New York Post, which rarely devotes much space to jail incidents, wrote an editorial expressing doubt that the operation was limited to just three guards. The editorial pressed officials to continue their investigation: "How could only three guards organize such an operation—with at least 12 inmates involved—without more people knowing what was going on?" wondered the Post's editorial board. "It defies credulity to assume that this is all that was going on."
And there were examples of the problem in other facilities dating all the way back to 2004, with the fatal beating of Tyreece Abney, 21, who was the last inmate murdered in the jail system before Robinson.
Abney, a mentally disabled man who probably never should have been in general population, was stomped to death in the George Motchan Detention Center by Bloods members after he had a loud argument with a correction officer. About 30 minutes before the fatal assault, a guard told the inmates in his unit: "You men in the house, you need to speak to the new inmates—you need to get your house in order," court testimony showed. Shortly thereafter, three inmates cornered Abney and attacked him, with one inmate saying he better "fly right."
During the investigation, authorities learned that one of Abney's assailants had been receiving extra phone and mail privileges from a correction officer.
In March 2007, the city agreed to pay $500,000 to settle a lawsuit involving a near-fatal assault by the leader of a "house gang." Inmate Kirk Fisher hit Donald Jackson, and Jackson fell, his head striking a piece of protruding metal in the floor. Jackson almost died. Fisher later testified that a correction officer told him to assault Jackson. "Before you do anything [he said], I'm going to go to the other side, and do what you got to do," the guard told Fisher, according to Fisher's deposition.
Describing his duties, Fisher said, "It was my job to enforce certain rules. Anybody that acted up in the house, it was my job to put them in line."
"The inmates tell us it's a really common setup," said Jackson's lawyer, Andrew Stoll, in the Voice's 2007 article on the case. "In a lot of the houses, the correction officers use the house gang as enforcers and pay them with cigarettes and extra commissary."
During the course of the Jackson case, Stoll was able to track down a former correction officer, Roger Cullen, who was on duty at the time of the assault. In his deposition, Cullen confirmed Fisher's claim: "It was like he was in charge," Cullen said in sworn testimony. "Any officer knows you're not supposed to do that. It's wrong."
Cullen was fired before he could be vested as a correction officer. As he told the Voice in 2007, he blamed the firing on his efforts to report corruption in the jail. The department investigated his claims, but in a cursory manner, and closed the case without taking action. "I tried to do the right thing," Cullen said in his deposition.
The McKie indictment has raised another issue. For many years now, the department has relied on statistics regarding stabbings and slashings in public testimony as its indicator of violence in the jails. Whenever the issue of violence is raised, officials trot out the low number of stabbings and slashings to show that the jail system is safe. Indeed, the figure has declined sharply over the past 15 years.
But this case vividly demonstrates that the figure is a poor indicator of the level of violence in today's environment. For one, it does not count beatings, broken bones, smashed noses, broken ribs, bruising, and many other kinds of injuries. Christopher Robinson's murder, for example, will not be counted as a stabbing or slashing.
Moreover, both the inmates and guards knew how to conceal injuries from the beatings, and they knew how to extort their victims into hiding the beating or lying about it. In other words, the system has evolved its own methods to avoid the heightened scrutiny that comes when a slashing or stabbing takes place.
In the end, no matter what the stats show, the number does not provide an accurate picture of the level of violence in RNDC.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.