Rikers Fight Club: More Widespread Then The City Admits
Even as indictments came down for two jail guards accused of using teen inmates as enforcers, Correction Department officials sought to downplay the breadth of the problem.
The indictments last month followed the October murder of teenager Christopher Robinson in the Rikers Island jail for young offenders, known as the Robert N. Davoren Center. Prosecutors charged two guards with organizing and training a group of inmates to keep control of other inmates through violence in a unit at the jail. In return, the inmates were allowed to run an extortion scheme.
Turns out, however, that the problem is also cropping up in other jails. At least, that's the case if you credit the account of EdLewis Cooper.
Cooper, a former inmate now released pending resolution of his criminal case, claims that he was targeted by a corrupt guard using inmates as enforcers to protect the guard's illicit tobacco smuggling operation -- only this time in a completely different jail than the teen facility where the Robinson homicide took place. Cooper's lawyer, Julia Kuan, plans to file a lawsuit in the case in the next few weeks.
Correction officials claimed that the practice was limited at RNDC to the two guards indicted last month and to just one unit, known as 1 Main. Yet another inmate, Tyreek Shuford, has come forward to claim that a different set of guards in a different RNDC unit, known as 5 Lower, were also using inmates as enforcers.
In that lawsuit, which cites cases first reported by the Voice, Shuford claims that in March, 2007, inmates beat him under the eyes of guards. The assault took place after Shuford refused to give up his chair in the dayroom to an Alpha inmate named "Vito."
Three weeks later, an officer attacked him, after calling Shuford's mother a "bitch," the lawsuit says. Shuford's mother is a former correction officer who actually had worked in RNDC. The officer took Shuford out of his cell to the day room and punched him in the face, the lawsuit says.
Shuford, just 17 at the time of the assaults, suffered a broken nose, a fracture of the left eye socket, and numerous cuts and bruises, the lawsuit claims. He did not receive medical attention for two days after the first assault. Instead, he was left in his cell. Officers refused to send him to the clinic.
"[The city] "failed to take sufficient steps to curb those beatings," the complaint says.
Cooper's case, meanwhile, took place at a jail for adults, known as the Anna M. Kross Center. His ordeal began May 15, 2008 when a search of the dorm turned up a range of contraband, including a large amount of tobacco and some cash.
Five years ago, Mayor Bloomberg banned tobacco in the jails as part of his anti-smoking campaign. As an unintended consequence, the jails are now home to a thriving black market in tobacco, correction sources say. According to one source, a pouch of loose tobacco that costs a few dollars on the street might go for as much as $100 inside. A business that lucrative has drawn correction officers into the game.
Cooper told his lawyers that a correction officer assigned to the unit had been bringing the contraband tobacco into the jail. This guard, he said, believed that an inmate had "snitched" to investigators about the smuggling scheme, triggering the search.
"They were bringing in alcohol, weed, tobacco, straight razors," Cooper says. "It was a Blood house."
Somehow, rumors circulated that Cooper was the source of that information. At that point, Cooper got jumped.
"I've been around and I never had any trouble," says Cooper, a burly man who looks like he could handle himself in a scrap. "After this incident, I was involved in seven or eight fights."
Right before the search, Cooper says, the officer had just handed out contraband tobacco and cash to inmates.
At about 7 p.m., an hour after the search, Cooper says he was playing cards in the dayroom, when a 6-foot-6, 300-pound inmate nicknamed House approached him, and asked him to come to a cell. With the officer and a group of other inmates looking on, House told Cooper to enter the cell.
Meanwhile, the officer, Cooper says, called him a "snitch."
As soon as he walked into the cell, a half-dozen blood gang members jumped him.
Cooper says the officer watched for a while and then after three minutes, the officer told Cooper's assailants, "That's enough." And then the officer told Cooper, "Go clean yourself up."
Cooper emerged from the beating bleeding from the head, bruised, and holding a shattered wrist. He also sustained back and a knee injuries. Doctors at the Rikers clinic failed to correctly diagnose the broken wrist. Instead, they simply wrapped it. Cooper spent weeks in agonizing pain, Kuan says.
"I wrote so many letters on the fact that he wasn't getting proper medical treatment and asking DOC to do a thorough investigation," she says. "No one responded."
Cooper even offered to identify the people who assaulted him, and there was no followup, Kuan says.
The wrist healed badly, Kuan says, and was not properly treated until officials transferred Cooper to another jail, known as the North Infirmary Command.
When he finally saw a specialist, Cooper was diagnosed with a fractured wrist. But the wrist had already healed, and so in order to fix what was wrong with it, doctors would have had to rebreak it and set it using screws. That procedure carries risks of its own, and they decided not to go forward, Kuan says.
Ironically, while Cooper had not been a snitch before his assault, he decided afterward that he need to protect himself and did come forward and speak with gang intelligence. According to a document that Cooper obtained, someone thought it was smart to name him as an informant in his file. In the post fight report, a captain actually wrote in that Cooper "is a confidential informant."
"You wonder why would someone put that in writing for everyone to see," Kuan says.
Jail officials have a policy that inmates who have been in fights must be separated. Shortly after his transfer to NIC, however, Cooper ran into House, the very same inmate who attacked him in the previous jail.
"I told him, you can't be here," Cooper says. "I told the correction officers about it."
The two men fought again. And Cooper was written up for the altercation.
Kuan says DOC records show that House was moved into NIC for one day and then moved out again.
"There should have been a separation order," Kuan says.
Later, Cooper was assaulted by yet another inmate in NIC who was specifically looking for a "herb" -- slang for a victim, or someone who is weak (Cooper's arm was in a sling at the time). Guards used a can of pepper spray on Cooper.
"Rikers is an extremely dangerous place for anyone who isn't part of one of these gangs," Cooper says.
When Cooper was released, he was sent the 30th Street Men's Shelter, which he says was chaotic and dangerous with residents selling cigarettes, marijuana and crack on the premises.
Today, Cooper has found a better living situation, though he is awaiting the outcome of his criminal case. Soon after his release, he says, he ran into his old high school sweetheart, and the two are now engaged.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.