Rikers Violence: Out Of Control
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."
And she said DOC is cooperating fully with the federal inquiry.
The way the Program operates is this: In Robert N. Davoren Center jargon, "kids" are the weakest inmates, "rockers" or "dudes" are the enforcers, and "the team" members are the leaders. In the dayroom, the table closest to the television is held by the team, the next closest tables by rockers, and the farthest is known as the "dick" table and reserved for weaker inmates. Inmates are said to be "on the dick" when they are weak. A "pop-off dummy" is an inmate who is ordered to fight other inmates by the leaders. Punishment includes being made to sit on the floor, also called being "on the balls." And "herbing" is the term used for getting in a fight in order to be transferred out of the unit.
This pecking order is obvious, Correction sources say, because there might be just four inmates sitting at one table and more than 10 sitting at each of the other tables. No one with gang status sits "on the dick," the sources say. Or you'll see three inmates outside of their cells and 47 locked in. Obviously, they have been ordered by the team to stay out of their cells.
In addition, some inmates use the phones much more than other inmates, even though there are restrictions on phone use. And some inmates get a lot more food than other inmates.
"Three things lead to violence on Rikers," says Joseph "Jazz" Hayden, a Harlem activist who spent several stints in city jails. "The phone, food, and the television. And the Correction Department doesn't do enough to control them to prevent violence. But it can be fixed. They just have to create and enforce a policy and motivate the Correction officers."
The teen jail, RNDC, was in the news most recently in the case of 18-year-old John Kadeem, who was badly beaten there on June 26, 2010. Kadeem suffered bleeding in the brain and internal organs and had blood in his urine.
During the course of litigation, the Correction Department was forced to disclose that a videotape of the beating had been destroyed as a routine matter. (Unless specifically preserved, Rikers video is destroyed after 60 days—a practice that investigators say is shortsighted.)
That disclosure set off a legal battle, and the federal judge in the case agreed to sanction the city. In his lawsuit, Kadeem alleged he was beaten by other inmates who controlled the unit and claimed officers let it happen.
Correction spokeswoman Sharman Stein told The New York Times there was "no evidence of staff complicity" in the fight.
According to the Times, an internal report claims that "officials did not fully investigate the incident until more than a year after the attack."
However, the Voice has obtained a report by gang-intelligence investigators that not only details the fight, but also describes the contents of the video and identifies Kadeem's attacker. That report is dated June 29, 2010, just three days after the attack.
In the report, Kadeem tells investigators that he was attacked by a youth who didn't want to sit at the dick table and wanted to increase his status.
"Video was reviewed by this writer, and the video reveals inmate [Gerald] Gayle running up to inmate Kadeem, causing him to hit the floor," an investigator writes.
Gayle told investigators that another inmate told him to hit Kadeem or "they were going to attack him."
In other words, Correction officials had the story, the motive, and the assailant in three days—rather than a year later—and the debriefing confirmed elements of the Program. It remains unclear why the full investigation took so long. Gayle was finally indicted in August 2011 on assault charges. The case is pending.
"We gave them the actual perp in three days, and they chose not to act on it," an investigator says. "They fucked up and let the guy go home."
But the Kadeem case is hardly isolated, as the documents the Voice obtained show. All of the documents the Voice reviewed for this story postdate the Robinson murder, covering 2009 to 2012.
Serious injury reports show that since January 1, inmates at RNDC have sustained 10 broken jaws, six broken noses, and three broken eye sockets. That tally doesn't count inmates who have kept quiet or who wait for treatment until after they have left the system.
On April 30, inmate James Clark suffered a broken jaw, a broken tooth, and bleeding gums, records show. The jail reported that he had been elbowed in a basketball game.
Three days later, investigators learned the truth: At the jail ward in Bellevue Hospital, Clark said his injury had nothing to do with a basketball game. He was returning to his cell when he was blindsided with a punch and knocked unconscious. He awoke to several inmates punching and kicking him in the face and torso. Clark claimed that he told the staff about the attack right away, but they refused to send him to the medical clinic. Instead, he was sent to the Rikers school. There, a more sympathetic guard let him go to the clinic, where he was transferred to Bellevue.
These documents include statements teens wrote themselves immediately after they were attacked. The statements depict a troubling Lord of the Flies–like subculture existing in RNDC.
Teen inmate Arthur Dawson, 19, who had just been assaulted on April 14, 2010, told investigators he was attacked because he declined to let the team use his personal-identification number to make phone calls.
"I was taking a shower when I got jumped by 'Bam Bam,' 'Pistol,' 'Tail,' 'Jack,' and 'Bones' because I refused to give up my PIN number and sit in the back table," Dawson wrote.
Eighteen-year-old Jonathan Vasquez, attacked on January 1, 2011, told investigators that after an inmate hit him in the face several times, "his friends told me to give them my pants, and I did and later that night, he punch [sic] me in my face anyway. I wish to be placed in PC [protective custody] for my protecting."
On June 17, 2009, inmate Francis Bastardo, 17, was attacked. He wrote: "I'm always being extorted, and I got smacked in the face a couple days ago. Every day I want to lock in my cell because I'm afraid for my own safety. I could only use the phone some days of the week. I got only a little bit of food with no milk."
After his assault on June 14, 2009, inmate Alex Dove, 16, wrote that he wasn't allowed to sit at a table in the dayroom. "I was not sitting at any of them [tables] because they called me a dayroom gay, they began slapping me," he wrote. "I wasn't even getting a tray for breakfast in the morning."
On August 21, 2010, after he was assaulted, Edwin DeJesus writes that he was jumped by eight inmates, locked into his cell, and fought again and slashed, and when he was sent back to his cell, his commissary had been stolen.
On June 18, 2009, Akeem Cordes, 23, after his assault, wrote: "On May 9th, my statement was read in arraignment court, and I was put back in the pens, I was assaulted by my co-defendant Kizzo . . . because he heard what I said to the detectives and thought I was snitching. He assaulted me by head butting me."
Adron Torres, 18, was attacked on April 7, 2011. In his statement, he wrote: "When I was walking down the stairs from the visiting floor, a Spanish dude who is Patria came pass [sic] me and pushed the guy in front of me. The Patria guy had a white cloth in his hand. Then the guy ran back upstairs. The victim raised his head, and his face was bleeding."
At one point, an inmate actually wrote down the rules of the Program—a matter-of-fact piece of paper the Voice obtained that describes an appalling atmosphere of intimidation and extortion. The handwritten document was seized in a search from the cell of a teen and is titled "The RNDC Wit It Program."
(All of these "rules" are in violation of Correction Department policies.)
"Kids can only make phone calls Monday, Wednesday, and Friday," the document reads. "They can't use the left phone, just the right."
"Whenever they call 4 [for] yard, only the team and dudes on the rocking spots can go.
"Only the team gets Boss trays, meaning they get extra food on their tray while dudes on a rocking spot get the required amount, and kids get very few portions of food.
"Whenever the house is walking out together, the kid that has the house walks in the front, followed by the team, then the dudes, then the dayroom kids all the way in the back.
"On Commissary Days, the dayroom kids have to give 20 percent of the food they buy to the team. It's called 'payin'' rent.
"The back table is the dick table."
One particularly appalling Rikers custom detailed in the reports is called the "three-man weave," after a common basketball drill. Essentially, an inmate who wants to move up in the pecking order is told to go into the bathroom.
There, he will find three other inmates waiting for him. He has to fight his way out of the bathroom against the trio. If he gets out, his status improves. If he goes down, he becomes the target for more violence.
Another method the gangs use is called "gassing." In that tactic, the team wants to beat up inmate Smith, so they order Smith to attack inmate Jones, and when the fight starts, they all jump Smith.
A copy of the clinic injury logbook from RNDC shows that 19 inmates were injured between April 16 and April 19, 2011—a period of just three days.
Extrapolated out over a year, that's more than 2,000 injuries, and that's only the ones that were actually reported. Thirteen of the 19 inmates were hurt in fights, which means that three-quarters of the injuries are related to violence.
"In RNDC, you can double those numbers. A lot go unreported," a Correction source says. "A lot of times, it's not one on one, it's 15 on 10, but they don't want to send a ton of kids to the clinic. So they call it a one on one, leave the other fighters in the unit, and lock them in. And as soon as they get out, they fight again, and the cycle continues."
Correction sources provided the Voice with statistics that showed 4,435 injuries at RNDC over the past year.
Sources say jail bosses often count multiple-inmate fights as just one on one, again in order to preserve the image of a safe penal system.
This happened, for example, in September 2009, records show. In the incident, the jail reported that one inmate, Quandel Baldwin, had only been play-fighting another inmate, Maruquis Carter.
Investigators interviewed other inmates and determined it was a lot worse than the jail claimed. "This writer reviewed videotape of incident, and the video clearly shows a multiple-inmate fight," the case investigator wrote.
It wasn't about play-fighting, the investigators learned. In fact, one of the inmates wanted to make a name for himself, so he attacked another, and then six other inmates jumped in and stomped the victim, the report concludes. Three of those inmates had 19 prior fights on their records.
The gang dominance of the phones in a given unit is extremely easy to figure out simply by examining who is getting the calls. For example, as a communication log printout shows, a phone number in the 718 area code received 88 calls from RNDC between October 7, 2010, and January 4, 2011.
The calls came from 18 different inmates, according to the identification numbers in the documents.
What that means, a Correction source said, is that either the number is tied to someone who smuggles drugs and other contraband into the facility, or to a friend or relative of one inmate who is forcing other inmates to give up their personal-identification numbers to him, so he can make more calls.
So it is puzzling why the Correction Department allows this situation to continue.
"The officers aren't running the phones," a Correction source says.
There's more disturbing information in the documents: One of the fundamental rules at Rikers is that teen and adult inmates should never mix, for obvious safety reasons.
But a series of extremely troubling photographs taken at RNDC on April 12, 2011, shows teen and adult inmates filing out of the barbershop together following a vicious fight that left two young inmates injured. One was seriously beaten, and the second suffered a slash wound. (The Voice obtained the photos from a Rikers source.)
Many of the adult inmates at RNDC are state prisoners sent down for court appearances, which means the teens are being allowed to mix with hardened criminals.
"They are teaching them and ordering them to fight and telling them when they get upstate, they'll take care of them," a Correction source says.
Searches in RNDC constantly turn up knives and shanks, documents show. For example, at various times throughout the past two years, investigators have seized six-inch sharpened pieces of metal, sharpened toothbrushes, Plexiglas honed to a razor point, an eight-inch sharpened fan spoke, and several knives made from metal ripped from the cell radiators.
Other photographs the Voice obtained show the appalling conditions teens must endure in RNDC: a dingy dayroom with missing floor tiles, a grimy wall with two phones and a plate for a third that was ripped out, a bathroom with filthy walls covered in graffiti and cracks, a security door with chipped paint, and worst of all, a filthy cell with missing floor tiles (sharpened tile pieces can be used as weapons), chipped paint, and a poorly painted window frame.
The Voice also obtained more than 200 reports that detail fight after fight over the past two years, the vast majority of them gang related.
Take just one report the Voice obtained, dating to July 2010. It describes tension in an RNDC unit. Two Blood gang leaders are described as "controlling the housing area and controlling the weapons and drugs" in the unit. One inmate is described as "suspected of having numerous Blood inmates meet with drug and weapon mules on visits."
A contraband delivery was two bags short, and so they decide to fight "a fair one to bring less heat on the house." The report says an unreported fight took place.
Following a fight in RNDC on March 18, 2011, inmate Pedro Olivo told investigators another inmate "ordered him to give up his commissary" and not report anything to guards. He refused. He was then threatened by another inmate and retaliated by punching that inmate repeatedly.
After another fight in RNDC on the same day, a self-described Crip named Jerell Hall claimed he fought because "RNDC is a Blood house," and he would fight until he was moved out.
After a fight on January 8, 2011, RNDC inmate Travis Lopez said he was told to sit "on the dick," and that the inmate leaders wanted him to give up his personal-identification number. He refused. He says he was then "blindsided" by several inmates.
One of those inmates was Donovan Wilson, witnesses told investigators. Wilson is six feet four inches, 290 pounds. Lopez is five feet seven inches, 130 pounds. Wilson still claimed it was Lopez's fault.
Correction officers told investigators that "Lopez has been hiding in his cell to avoid problems with the four identified perps," an investigator wrote. "Wilson is clearly visible hitting inmate Lopez and starting the assault."
The case was referred to prosecutors.
On April 3, 2011, inmate Keith Martin, 19, suffered a broken nose and a fracture of the bones around his right eye. His face was badly bruised. Two days later, the case was upgraded to a "serious injury."
Martin, who was at Rikers for graffiti, told investigators he was sleeping and suddenly, he was being beaten. He curled up in a fetal position to stave off the blows.
The motive? "Random act of violence," investigators concluded.
And there are the slashings and stabbings. On April 1, 2011, for example, RNDC inmate Luis Medina, 26, suffered a 15-inch laceration to the left side of his back. It was initially classified as an assault, then upgraded to a slashing the following day.
Medina gave a series of inconsistent statements and told his mother that he planned to sue the city, the report says.
On April 14, 2011, inmate Raquieth Johnson suffered long, gaping lacerations on his face while he was shackled. Johnson had been involved in seven prior fights and two prior slashings.
The man who allegedly attacked him, Michael Molinero, had been previously involved in six fights and a stabbing, the report says.
Both men are gang members.
When Johnson was interviewed in the hospital, he claimed, "I don't know who cut me."
Investigators were able to identify Molinero as Johnson's attacker through inmate interviews and by listening to his phone calls. The motive for the attack? Molinero thought Johnson was snitching, and he plotted the attack before executing it.
But even though investigators learned the name of Johnson's attacker, his refusal to cooperate made it difficult for Molinero to be prosecuted.
On April 20, 2010, inmate David Plunkett, a Crip, suffered a slash to the face from ear to mouth. The investigation revealed that he basically was surrounded by Bloods and attacked. He was punched in the face by one Blood and cut from behind. Plunkett refused to cooperate in a prosecution of his attackers.
Although those slashings were counted in the numbers, Correction sources say that in some cases, when a slashing does not require stitches or a hospital stay or when the victim refuses to identify his attacker, the incident is not counted in the slashing numbers. This is because stabbings and slashing have long been the primary public way the Correction Department gauges jail violence, even though there are many, many fights that result in serious injury.
"Violence isn't down," a Correction source says. "They play with the numbers."
For example, inmate Michayah Rogers was attacked on July 4, 2010. A captain in his unit wrote four days later that Rogers "claims he was assaulted by an unknown inmate."
At the clinic on Rikers, doctors diagnosed two puncture wounds on the right side of his chest and noted that there was "no need for sutures at present."
Even though the incident was a stabbing, it was likely not counted as such because there was no need for stitches.
When inmate Jonathan Perez was attacked on August 27, 2010, at RNDC, a Correction captain noted in the injury report that the assault "resulted in an injury to the facial area," and "injury reports were submitted."
But the clinic report states that Perez had "facial lacerations," along with a "nasal contusion" and "palm abrasion." The laceration strongly suggested a slashing, but the incident wasn't classified that way, Correction sources said.
Often, inmates don't cooperate. When inmate Gary Peterson got in a fight on April 15, 2011, he simply refused treatment and would not cooperate with investigators.
And there is a backlog in the punitive-segregation unit, which means that inmates who start fights often aren't sent there until much later. In the meantime, they continue to fight. Some inmates have amassed more than 200 days of punitive-segregation time, and yet they remain in general population.
Even though a lot of the violence emanates from gang members, Correction Commissioner Schriro has been cutting staff in the gang-intelligence unit, slashing overtime, and turning it from a unit that develops intelligence for the department and other law-enforcement agencies to one that essentially investigates inmate fights, gang-intelligence investigators say.
GI investigators say they have been ordered to stop updating the gang database and listening to the inmate phones. Schriro has also ordered that just eight gangs and 10 watch groups be tracked, when there are many more gangs on the island.
DOC spokeswoman Stein provided the Voice with a list of things that the department has done to address teen violence. There are more cameras in RNDC—481—than any other jail on Rikers, she says. There are now five officers in each of the teen-housing units. Schriro added a deputy warden specifically to monitor the teens, and a second tour commander for each shift. Academy training officers help manage the inmates. Veteran officers get extra pay if they choose to work in RNDC.
Schriro is also lobbying the Board of Corrections to eliminate a rule that requires inmates to be out of their cells for at least 14 hours a day because all that time is a factor in the fighting. She is implementing new post-release programs to help teens avoid future incarceration.
Stein said it is now easier than ever for inmates to report bullying or intimidation. The commissioner has created 32 punitive segregation beds in RNDC. And any time there's is a discrepancy in a fight or injury report, staff is immediately disciplined.
When allegations of problems in the incident reporting at RNDC were raised in December, Schriro immediately ordered an investigation.
"There is a zero-tolerance policy for fights," she says. "Every one of those incidents is now classified as a fight, and every inmate is infracted for it."
And she said more than 1,100 cells have been repainted at RNDC, and the floor has been repaired, along with other improvements, including fire alarms, ventilation, and lighting.
Finally, she denies that the gang-intelligence unit has been hamstrung by budget cuts and new duties. "Phone monitoring of inmates has not been stopped," she says.
A Correction source says that just because no direct evidence of guard complicity has been uncovered, that doesn't mean they aren't condoning the practice. "You would have to be a moron to see two kids on a table and 25 on the floor and not know that's the Program. If you see 300 kids in the yard, but it's the same 10 kids playing basketball every day, that's the Program. If you see one kid on the phone all day long, that's the Program. You may not be telling them what to do, but you're letting it happen."
"The blatancy of the conduct that's being reported indicates that it couldn't happen without either the active or passive complicity of staff," jails expert and Legal Aid lawyer John Boston says. "One of the things we often hear is that the officer was in the bubble. To what extent this phenomenon is active collaboration and what represents turning a blind eye, we don't know. But it has to be one or the other."
"Rikers Island facilities are short staffed," Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley says. "Unless the Bloomberg administration addresses staffing needs and hires more Correction officers, violence is going to continue to rise with more and more inmates and Correction officers getting seriously injured."
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.
- Return of the Rightbloggers! On the GOP, Umpqua, and the 3-D Printing of the Presidency
Wed., Oct. 7, 7:30pm
Thu., Oct. 8, 12:00am
Thu., Oct. 8, 12:00am
Fri., Oct. 9, 12:00am
- Aging Bluestockings Book Shop Launches Crowdfunding Campaign to Fund Rehab Efforts
- Tired of Waiting for the Compassionate Care Act to Take Effect? Maybe It's Time to...