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Teen Murder at Rikers Jail

Illustration by Ward Harkavy

The fatal beating last month of a teenager on Rikers Island has sparked new fury about how the huge jail complex is operated.

The teen, Christopher Robinson, is believed to have bled to death over a period perhaps stretching to 12 hours, the Voice has learned.

Investigators are probing whether guards caused a lapse in security that let the inmates get to Robinson or even turned a blind eye to the beating, sources say. The incident has sparked a broader probe of whether jail staff are condoning inmate-on-inmate violence in the jail where the teen was killed.

City Correction Commissioner Martin Horn is facing a major test in how he handles the fallout. At the meeting of a jail oversight board last week, Horn provided no details on the incident. However, behind the scenes, jail sources say, the teen's murder has the top brass scrambling.

Robinson, an 18-year-old Brooklyn resident being held on a minor parole violation for missing curfew, was punched, kicked, and stomped to death on October 17 by three other inmates — Bloods gang members — in a wing at the Robert N. Davoren Center (RNDC), the jail where adolescent male offenders are housed, officials and law enforcement sources said.

Some jail officials had urged that, after Robinson had allegedly been involved in an altercation with another inmate, he be placed in a more secure area of the jail, but that request was turned down, allegedly because of a lack of bed space.

Robinson's mother has raised questions about the medical care that her son received — or perhaps more accurately, did not receive — after the beating.

Her threatened lawsuit — which at this early stage is still just a $20 million "notice of claim" against the city — alleges that he sought medical care at the jail infirmary but was turned away because he did not have a pass.

The teen is believed to have bled to death internally after the beating caused one of his ribs to puncture a lung, sources tell the Voice.

The murder has drawn more public attention than any other jail homicide in recent memory — a series of investigations, more than the usual smattering of newspaper articles, a lawsuit, the transfer of three jail bosses, desk duty for several officers, an upcoming city council hearing, and a protest.

While Charnel Robinson denies that her son had any gang affiliation, the Correction Department had him listed as a member of the Crips gang, records indicate.

"Whether he was or wasn't, it bears no relevance to the fact he was a teenager beaten to death under the supervision of the Department of Correction," says Robinson family lawyer Sanford Rubenstein. "He's still the victim."

Bishop Wilbur Jones, the Robinson family pastor, adds, "There had to be officers who heard his cries from his cell and if it happened in the cell, somebody had to let these inmates in. The Department of Correction failed this man."

The complicity of guards in inmate assaults has been a recurring problem at RNDC and other city jails, as the Voice has reported ("Rikers Island Fight Club). And other violent incidents have sparked continual criticism. (See "A Short Life Ends on Rikers Island, in a Place Where Suicide Isn't Supposed to Happen," May 27, and "Woman-on-Woman Rape Claim at Rikers," August 5.)


Correction records indicate that two days before the fatal assault, a Blood alleged that five inmates, including Robinson attacked him in another housing area at RNDC.

It is unclear what, if any, role Robinson had in that attack, because correction staff did not witness it, the records show. The alleged victim sustained a minor injury — sore ribs.

The victim in the prior assault was transferred to close custody, where inmates are held in 23-hour lockdown ostensibly for their own protection.

But Robinson was transferred to a less secure unit, one for inmates with behavioral problems.

Publicly, the Correction Department has proclaimed faith in its gang-intelligence division's ability to separate inmates who might have a beef with each other.

Robinson was seen alive in his cell at 11:40 a.m. by a guard, records show. Robinson told the guard, according to records compiled by guards, that he wanted to stay in the cell. When the guard returned, Robinson was unconscious on the bed. A review of a Correction Department document obtained by the Voice indicates that there was a gap between the beating and Robinson's treatment, but the precise duration remains unclear.

If Robinson was involved in an altercation with Bloods before he was murdered,it's curious that he was transferred into a housing area dominated by Bloods.

There are only two ways in which Robinson's attackers could have entered his cell without his consent: Either the guards opened the door on purpose, or they left it open long after it should have been closed. The location of guards during the assault remains unclear.

 

Sidney Schwartzbaum, president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens/Deputy Wardens Association, says that after the earlier incident that may have involved Robinson, a deputy warden at RNDC tried to have Robinson placed in punitive segregation, where no one could have entered his cell.

But the division chief's office denied the request. "He was told there was no room in punitive segregation," Schwartzbaum tells the Voice. "Inmates have been placed in punitive segregation for a lot less. The sad part is that had he been placed in segregation, he probably would be alive today."

Schwartzbaum says he has complained for years that transfers of inmates facing disciplinary charges to punitive segregation have been delayed because of a lack of bed space.

In connection with the subsequent beating death of Robinson, several guards were transferred, and at least two others have been placed on modified assignment.

Officials with Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson have scheduled a meeting with Robinson's family for Thursday, a family lawyer said. A spokesman for that office says no arrests have been made, but an investigation is ongoing.

Jones, 65, says the case is particularly tragic because Robinson was trying to turn his life around. "He was only in jail because he had to work overtime and missed curfew, violating his parole," Jones says. "He was a fine young man and he had a future in front of him."

Robinson was initially picked up on a shoplifting charge for allegedly stealing a cell phone from a store. He served a few months, and was released on probation.

He found temporary work at Staples. One night, he was asked to work late, and wound up breaking his curfew, Jones says. Robinson was sent back to Rikers on the violation.

The teen's mother says that he told her only two days before the fatal assault that he had had an argument with someone. Mother and son last spoke by phone on the day of the assault and were scheduled to see other that Sunday. Robinson is now buried in a cemetery in New Jersey.

"I could tell in his voice that something was wrong," says Charnel Robinson, who works as a store manager. "He should be here with me. The only thing I can do is bring these people to justice."

She says she's also upset that Correction officials have not reached out to her. "It just really troubles me that to this day I haven't heard anything from the DOC, not even a simple condolence," she says.


Investigators are surveying inmates at RNDC in an unusual effort to determine to what extent officers are working in collusion with prisoners — "letting them run the show," as one source put it.

As the Voice has previously reported, the Bloods have come to dominate many jail housing areas, at times controlling other inmates' access to phones, recreation time and the commissary.

In some cases, they are tapped to staff the "cleaning crew" which gives them extra time outside their cells and access to brooms, and other equipment that have been used as weapons.

Even before the investigation is completed, Horn has transferred RNDC warden Gregory McLaughlin and two deputy wardens, in addition to the officers placed on modified assignment and desk duty.

"Commissioner Horn felt that the jail was in need of stronger leadership and management," says DOC spokesman Stephen Morello.

But the two deputy wardens—Mark Scott, a 23-year veteran, and Artemio Colon, a 28-year veteran—had previously initiated investigations of staff who condoned inmate on inmate violence at RNDC.

Their efforts last year and this year led to at least one indictment of an officer, and several firings.

Schwartzbaum says the transfers were an effort to "point fingers" at middle management without addressing the underlying problem or holding the executive staff accountable.

"Accountability in this department stops at the warden's level," he says. "Although I think Commissioner Horn has done an excellent job on many things, the one criticism I have is that he doesn't hold his chiefs accountable."

Two weeks before Robinson's murder, the chief's office applauded the work of the RNDC bosses, Schwartzbaum notes.

"It's ironic that they moved this staff down, because two weeks prior they were told what a great job they were doing," he says. "To me this [series of transfers] is merely an attempt to say they took some sort of action."

And, according to one correction source, the transfers don't really address the problem. "The extortion of inmates by other inmates has to be stopped, and the staff has to be in control," the source says.

 

Correction spokesman Morello declined to comment on details of the investigation. "Maintaining staff integrity and providing for safety and security of all in our custody is paramount," he said in a statement. "That is why we immediately asked the NYPD, District Attorney and Department of Investigation to look into not only who may have attacked inmate Robinson but also staff behavior." The city council hearing prompted by the Robinson murder is scheduled for Nov. 24.


Correction officials have publicly downplayed the severity of the problem of inmate-on-inmate violence at Rikers, but the incidents — particularly ones in which guards are involved — just keep taking place.

The Voice was the first media outlet to report extensively on the phenomenon of guard involvement in such violence.

Consider the following:

• In February, Correction Officer Lloyd Nicholson was charged with ordering teenage inmates to beat other teen inmates at RNDC. As the Voice reported, Nicholson used a select group of teen enforcers under a regimen he called "the program."

"Basically, it was like the movie A Few Good Men," a source told the Voice in April. "Either you were in the program or not. He thought the ones who weren't abiding with the program were misbehaving, and he used other inmates to discipline them."

• Ex-inmates Camillo Douglas and Luis Soriano are suing the city, claiming that Bloods assaulted them last year at RNDC after guards purposely opened their cell doors after bedtime to allow the beatings to take place, their lawyer, Julia Kuan, says.

When Douglas alleged to the Voice that the Bloods controlled the housing unit, Correction officials pooh-poohed it, and he was ignored.

But in September, the Voice obtained internal Correction Department documents showing that top officials at RNDC were aware that Bloods indeed controlled the housing area.

"Gang members known as Bloods are in fact giving orders to other inmates," wrote Captain Belinda Nicks. "They conspired to attack and assault Douglas and Soriano."

Assistant Deputy Warden Zina McLean wrote in her report, "Bloods were trying to manipulate the feeding with distribution of the portions."

And a May 2007 report written by the RNDC warden, Gregory McLaughlin, says the same thing in more muted tones: "It is evident that this incident was a result of Bloods attempting to influence the feeding and telephone use with other inmates."

• Back in 2000, Bloods got into the cell of Bronx teen Matthew Velez and fatally beat him. Correction officers broke policy in opening his cell door and then either ignored his cries for help or failed to do the required security checks.

During a 2002 trial, one of Velez's killers testified the unit was a "Blood house" and that an accomplice actually asked an officer for permission to "make it hot" — or beat up Velez.

"In the house I was in," he testified, "it's very common. You go to [certain] officers. Every day, there's a fight."

Little seems to have changed since then. Within the past several weeks, correction sources say, inmates in one RNDC housing area were obliged to ask permission from another inmate to enter and leave the dayroom.

"We do get complaints about gang violence and collusion with officers in distributing contraband and quote, enforcing discipline, close quote, by inmates at RNDC," says Jonathan Chasen, a lawyer with Legal Aid's Prisoners Rights Project.

RNDC may be more vulnerable to that kind of behavior, jail observers tell the Voice, because youthful inmates are more vulnerable than adult inmates, they don't speak up as often, and they are seen as easier to coerce by the staff.

• RNDC has been the site of three suicides in the past two years, including two in the highly secure close-custody wing, where inmates are locked in their cells for 23 hours. One of the suicides was 18-year-old Steven Morales, who hanged himself with a towel after his girlfriend dropped him. The incidents have raised obvious questions about the quality of supervision in the jail.


Guard involvement in inmate assaults has been reported at other Rikers jails as well.

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.

The plaintiff in the lawsuit, Donald Jackson, was punched once in the head by inmate Kirk Fisher in an AMKC mental observation ward in May 2003.

Jackson's head struck a piece of protruding metal on the floor so hard that he developed a blood clot in his brain and almost died if not for an operation at Elmhurst Hospital, records show.

 

"The inmates tell us it's a really common set-up," said Andrew Stoll, a Brooklyn lawyer who specializes in police and Correction Department cases, at the time. "In a lot of the houses, the correction officers use the house gang as enforcers, and pay them with cigarettes and extra commissary."

Fisher testified that, indeed, he had been "deputized" by correction officers to run the unit — a violation of DOC rules.

"I was the house captain, and it was my job to enforce certain rules," he testified. "Anybody that acted up in the house, it was my job to put them in line."

A deposition given by former correction officer Roger Cullen was even more dismaying.

Cullen, the officer who witnessed the assault on Jackson, testified in the deposition that Fisher told other inmates when to shower, when to lock-in, and when to clean their cells.

"It was like he was in charge," Cullen said, adding, "Any officer knows you're not supposed to do that — it's wrong."

Meanwhile, the mayhem continues. Earlier this month, the Daily News reported that a former inmate named Jeffrey Treffy, of Queens, claimed he was forced to fight another inmate in December 2007 for the amusement of correction officers. Treffy claims that officers allowed him to get medical care only if he told doctors that he hurt himself in a fall.


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