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Roaming Rikers

View through the surveillance cameras: high-security cell blocks at the North Infirmary Command
photo: Andrew Lichtenstein
Roaming Rikers | Inside Tier 3C | Did You See Me on TV? | A Visit to Rosie's | Beauty Tips for Prisoners | In Captain Grillo's Garage | Bing Days | A Sense of Humor

Inside Tier 3C

In the lobby of the North Infirmary Command, a five-story jail across the street from the commissioner's trailer, I dropped my driver's license in a metal drawer. The guard behind the glass pushed back a laminated pass. "Don't lose that thing," said Angelo Manzi, then the jail's deputy warden, as I clipped it to my shirt. "Or we'll have to find a place for you." He was joking, but not entirely. On Rikers, a misplaced visitor's pass triggers a facility-wide search; in a prisoner's hands, it could become a get-out-of-jail-free card.

The North Infirmary Command has only 446 beds, fewer than any other Rikers jails, but it is a magnet for journalists because it holds the "front-page folks," as Thomas Antenen, the Department of Correction's spokesman at the time, liked to call them. All stripes of celebrities have slept there, from David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz and Robert "Preppy Killer" Chambers to Reverend Al Sharpton and rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard of Wu-Tang Clan. Most inmates whose mug shots show up in the tabloids do their time at this jail, where they are kept apart from the rest of the prisoner population so guards can watch them closely.

Today, there were no boldfaced celebrities on Rikers. Ol' Dirty Bastard had been arrested two days earlier, but this time he'd paid his bail quickly. The best-known resident at the moment was Kenneth Kimes, who, with his mother, was convicted of murdering a Manhattan millionaire. (Later, after being shipped to an upstate prison, Kimes attracted national attention when he held a reporter hostage for more than four hours with a Paper Mate pen.)

For reporters, photographers, television producers, and cameramen who wanted to visit Rikers, Antenen was the gatekeeper. Until recently, when he followed Kerik to the NYPD, Antenen's job had been to spin for the city's jail system as its "Deputy Commissioner, Public Information." When a reporter heard that a prisoner had hanged himself or stabbed a guard or tried to swim to LaGuardia, Antenen got the call. His duties included sifting through media inquiries from as far away as Japan and Italy, memorizing the names of rap stars who are often arrested, and turning down all journalists who asked to spend a night in a Rikers cell.

I had been to the North Infirmary Command as a reporter twice in the last few years, and like almost every interview conducted on the island, mine were set up ahead of time, according to the agency's rules. I faxed a letter to Antenen. The prisoner signed a release. And on the appointed day, a guard escorted the inmate into a tiny room close to the jail's entrance, where I got one hour, maybe two, to ask questions. No strolling around the jail, no peeking inside the inmate's cell, no chatting with other prisoners. As Antenen liked to say, "We don't just let reporters go fishing among our inmate population."

But for this story, Kerik and Antenen made an exception. They had agreed to let me tour Rikers' jails as long as I had an escort. Or four. This morning, my presence seemed a matter of discomfort, since the jail's three highest-ranking officials, plus Antenen, had decided to act as my personal tour guides. I recognized one of them, Anthony Serra, from the recent meeting of Kerik's managers. Serra became a guard when he was 23, after toiling for three years as a dividends clerk on Wall Street. At 39, his buzz cut and stocky frame made him look less like a corporate climber than a marine, the job he held after high school.

We began our tour outside Tier 2C, where inmates pass the hours in their six-by-eight-foot cells or an attached cage, which functions as a mini-recreation room. The walls echoed with the voices of talk-show hosts and cartoon characters. Serra stopped next to the first cage, home of his youngest prisoner.

"This inmate was involved in a murder in our adolescent facility," Serra said, gesturing at a sullen 17-year-old named John Alexander, who later pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter. "But because he's an adolescent, he gets this cubicle to himself. We run services just for him. We take him to recreation. We take him to the library. When he goes to school, he wears mitts, but not during school." On Rikers Island, "mitts" are black, foot-long tubes, closed at one end, which are locked onto the hands of especially violent inmates.

Alexander did not look up from his television as Serra described his predicament. After the teenager strangled fellow inmate Lance Gaston in January 1999, officials moved him to this cell. "Are you getting your GED?" Serra asked through the steel bars. The inmate nodded. "Are you going to pass?" He nodded again. "Have you taken any practice tests?" The teenager shook his head no. Serra encouraged him to study, then strode down the narrow cell block.

 

The forced falseness of the exchange reminded me, if I needed reminding, that the truth about daily life inside Rikers does not come out easily. Casual conversations, whether with inmates or guards, are almost impossible; careless remarks to a reporter can injure a career or plunge a prisoner into disfavor. The evidence is everywhere—including in the clenched jaw and darting eyes of a captain at the women's jail when I tried to chat with him about his job. "We can't talk to reporters," he said. "It's in our rule book." The pleading stares of prisoners as they passed me in the hall suggested they would scream out all their fears and frustrations if only a row of officers armed with pepper spray were not watching. In this sense, all prison reporting is a lie, and the best one may hope for is a set of half-truths or an unscripted moment that reveals what is supposed to remain hidden.

Next was Reginald Harris, who reclined in a plastic chair and stared at the window across the corridor from his cell. According to a printout Serra carried on his clipboard, Harris escaped from a state facility in 1982 and was caught with "escape-related" material while on Rikers in 1990. Over the years, he'd made three trips to state prison for weapons possession. I asked Harris what he did all day. He slipped off a pair of headphones and fixed his gaze on the crew of visitors outside his cage.

"I figure out ways to get out of jail," he said.

Serra chuckled, but only for a moment.

"I've been coming to Rikers Island since 1968," said Harris, 49, dragging on a Newport. "I don't respect the law. I feel it's my right to be free. I've escaped three times—two times it was documented and once before they put in the computer system. I escaped in 1973, 1982, and I tried in 1990." What went wrong in 1990? "I had a map," said Harris, sounding rueful. "But I told the wrong person. I thought he wanted to be free."

Serra steered the group up a flight of stairs. On Rikers, most prisoners who flout the rules—who slash an enemy or punch a guard—get sent to one of five special punitive units nicknamed the "Bing." Inmates who are too notorious and dangerous for the Bing come to Tier 3C of the North Infirmary Command—where we were now. As we approached the entrance, Serra shouted, "On the gate!"

Glancing at his inmate roster, Serra pointed to Damon Barow's name. "He cut a C.O. [correction officer] while he was in [the Bing], so he's over here," Serra explained. Next was David Pannell. "He's a Five Percenter and he's at war with the Bloods," he continued. "The Bloods would love to do him any time they can." Steel mesh covers the cages on Tier 3C to prevent prisoners from slicing passersby. This precaution was especially helpful at the moment, since Pannell lived at the corridor's far end, while the prisoner in the first cell was Leonard "Deadeye" McKenzie, the leader of the Bloods.

Tier 3C's residents began hollering before we even stepped inside their cell block. "Every time I come in here, they annoy me," said Serra, his smile now gone. "Someone had a gold bracelet and he refused to give it up. He swallowed the chain. And he stuffed a ring in his butt. I brought in the search team, and they refused to lock in [to their cells], so I had to gas them."

Officers pepper-sprayed the inmates into submission, but the memory of the confrontation still riled Serra. "Did you see The Silence of the Lambs?" he asked, referring to the way the Anthony Hopkins character, Hannibal Lecter, is cuffed, chained, and muzzled. "That's how I would like to do it. I'd love to put 'em on handcarts and just transport them."

Gossip columnists at the New York Post may not know Deadeye's name, but on Rikers Island he is an A-list celebrity. Deadeye, whose moniker refers to his one cloudy eye, cofounded the Bloods' New York City chapter on Rikers in 1993. Soon after, he boosted his notoriety by slamming an officer in the head with a 50-pound dumbbell. Now 32, Deadeye has been cycling through New York's jails since age 10, on charges ranging from selling cocaine to robbery to assault. His "pedigree card"—where officers scribble an inmate's security classification—states: "Must be accompanied by staff for every move. Highly assaultive."

 

"Hey, warden, why should I be subjected to no-contact visits with my family?" Deadeye shouted as we walked by his cell.

"It's for your own protection and the protection of the inmate population," Serra told him. "He's a little angry with me because I took away his contact visits," the warden whispered to me. "Now he visits through glass because I don't want anyone slashing him, and I don't want him slashing anyone."

With hundreds of followers, Deadeye is among Rikers' most powerful residents, part of the impetus behind Kerik's Gang Intelligence Unit. "When he arrived here," Serra said, "the very next day, I had a slashing in my yard between the Bloods and Five Percenters for no other reason than the Bloods were showing off for the boss." Since then, Deadeye has not given Serra too many headaches. "I let him know he may be the leader of the Bloods, but I'm the leader of the jail and I control him," Serra explained. "I tell him it could be peaceful, or we could go to war every day."

Serra's tour of Tier 3C ended in the hallway outside the cell block, next to a padlocked cabinet mounted on the wall. Inside, two rows of orange Bic razors hung behind a glass door. Prisoners are allowed a razor for a 15-minute shave each day. But if they refuse to return their Bic, the warden calls in his search team—guards in helmets and body armor, armed with batons and shields. As Serra finished, I counted the razors and jotted in my notepad: New 36, Used 13.

I realized a deputy warden had been monitoring what I wrote when he blurted out: "Did you count 13?" Suddenly, the calm professionalism of the jailers gave way to quiet panic. A missing razor meant a search team and pepper spray. Everyone stared at my notes, then at the cabinet. The officials quickly counted the used blades. One, two, three, four . . . 14. I'd undercounted by one. The men relaxed.


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