In Captain Grillo’s Garage
When razor counting and gang tracking fail to keep the prisoners under control, Rikers’ leaders descend on a garage located next door to the car wash on the island’s north side. Antenen, the jails’ spokesman, brought me here one afternoon and pressed the buzzer by the entrance. A door rose, revealing a cavernous warehouse. Equipment climbed the walls and spread across the floor—stacks of riot helmets, toolboxes, a circular saw, fire extinguishers, Kevlar vests, hoses, a forklift, a pipe wrench, spit masks, wooden batons, plastic shields, mitts, and life preservers.
Captain James Grillo beamed when he discovered Antenen and I had come to check out his workplace, the garage holding all the equipment for the Emergency Services Unit. Depending on whom you ask, the ESU, or “boom squad,” is a group of dedicated officers with the toughest job on the island or a bunch of testosterone-fueled thugs who get a rush from brawling with the inmates. ESU guards break up riots, search cell blocks, and haul uncooperative inmates out of their cells.
The ESU employed only 16 guards when Grillo became its training captain seven years ago. Then Kerik arrived and expanded the ESU to 111 officers. At the same time, Kerik quadrupled the amount of money the Department of Correction spent on security equipment—a three-year budget of $2.5 million from 1993 to 1995 escalated to $10.1 million from 1996 to 1998. With every extra million dollars, trucks packed with shiny new weapons and other assorted high-tech gizmos arrived at Grillo’s garage.
As the U.S. prison population has exploded in recent years, so has the number of companies marketing products to jail officials, creating a multimillion-dollar industry. Grillo tests many of the latest products in this garage, transforming it into his own personal laboratory as he tries to discover new and better ways both to protect guards and control prisoners.
The captain began our tour by grabbing a Plexiglas shield with a battery pack on the back and silver wiring across the front. He planted his feet. “C’mon! Out of your cell!” Grillo shouted, shoving the shield toward an imaginary inmate. “We’re not going to use force. But this shield gives off 50,000 volts!” The captain flicked a switch, and bright blue sparks of electricity shot across the quarter-inch-thick piece of plastic. A loud crackling sound followed. “Most of the inmates will comply,” Grillo explained. “They don’t want to get shocked.”
Stun shields first arrived on Rikers Island in 1997, with the promise that both guards and inmates would suffer fewer bruises and broken bones. Behind this notion was the theory that the shield would scare prisoners into submission—not because a guard pressed it against their flesh, but because the mere sight of the sparking shield would transform inmates into Pavlovian dogs, who would quickly learn to exit their cells meekly rather than get zapped and dragged out by angry guards. By this measure, the agency’s 90 shields—bought at $545 a piece—have been effective.
But, of course, some inmates do get shocked. For these obstinate prisoners, an instructor’s guide provides helpful pointers: Aim for the back, arms, legs, and buttocks. Don’t aim for the eyes, testicles, scrotum, throat, spine, open wounds, or pregnant stomach.
In the beginning, the biggest hurdle to the shield’s effective use was not Amnesty International, but the guards’ timidity. “The officers didn’t want to hit the inmates with the shield—with all the oversight agencies we have,” Grillo said. “The inmate just got one little crack. It wasn’t intimidating enough.” Grillo had the shield’s battery pack rigged so the officer can no longer zap prisoners for only a second or two. Now every switch of the shield triggers a six-second shock of 50,000 volts.
Grillo disappeared for a moment, then returned cradling a sleek object resembling a video camera. “I want to show you something else,” he said. Across the room, one of Grillo’s officers pressed his hand against a metal door, then stepped away. Through the lens, I could make out a grainy black-and-white picture of his handprint. This device, called NightSight, uses technology originally marketed to the military to help soldiers track their enemies.
A handful of prisoners escape from the city’s jails each year, and the list of successful strategies is long and varied. Three inmates stole an officer’s Oldsmobile and drove over the bridge in 1980. Several prisoners have managed to swim to LaGuardia, while others have been pulled down by the bay’s vicious tides. And in 1999, an inmate escaped by clinging to the bottom of a truck.
Each missing person triggers an enormous manhunt. Now, instead of prowling around the island’s leafy areas or climbing through dirt to check under modular housing units, the guards can use NightSight. “This picks up body heat,” Grillo explained. “It’s totally incredible. A few years ago, we were looking for a guy in a field, and we found a couple eggs from a goose!”
To Grillo, the device represented a vote of confidence from his boss. “If it weren’t for Kerik, I wouldn’t have this, because this is $13,000,” said Grillo, rubbing his prized acquisition. “When I decided on this, he said, ‘OK, you got it, buddy.’ We bought one for each boat, and for the patrol vehicle, and the handheld one.” A mischievous grin crept across the captain’s face. “Now I got to butter him up to see if I can get $13,000 for something else,” he said.
And yet, Grillo’s garage does not contain all of the most expensive equipment purchased by the Department of Correction. In 1997, a new type of metal detector, the Body Orifice Security Scanner, known as the BOSS chair, arrived on Rikers. Instead of walking through the detector, inmates must sit on it. The $4500 chair beeps if a prisoner has any type of metal inside him—handcuff keys, razor blades, shanks.
Officer Brian Kirk walked over to join his boss’s show-and-tell tour as Grillo picked up one of his least expensive weapons, an eight-foot metal pole with a crossbar near the center and a U-shape at one end, which looked like it could pass for a medieval torture tool. The two men seized the crossbar, lifted the pole parallel to the ground, and jabbed it into the gut of an invisible prisoner. If an inmate is armed with a homemade weapon, they explained, the device pins him against a wall.
Grillo moved on to another favorite piece of equipment: riot vests. The Department of Correction would later award a $4.8 million contract to purchase 11,000 vests for jail guards. Kirk slipped on one of the half-inch-thick vests, and Grillo inspected it as if he were a football coach checking his players’ equipment before a big game. “It came without the shoulder pads,” Grillo explained. “Then we had an officer stabbed in the shoulder, so we had them add shoulder pads.”
Next on Grillo’s tour was a 36-inch wooden baton, which looked like it could have been hanging from a cop’s waistband. The captain grabbed the baton and lunged forward. “You always aim lower than the throat,” he said. “And you can use it to lock the guy’s arms back.” Grillo dropped the wooden baton and picked up a shorter, sleeker version known as a Celayaton. “That’s the same thing they use in these third-world countries where they do a lot of caning,” Kirk explained. A sticker on the Celayaton stated “Made in Indonesia.”
Grillo grew animated as he described how—armed with a Celayaton instead of an old-fashioned wooden baton—a guard can bang an inmate without breaking his bones. “This is new technology,” he said. “It’s a nonlethal weapon. If you are starting to have a problem with an inmate, you may not be able to mace him. Now you have another alternative. Everything is nonlethal. We hope to keep things that way. Unless they escalate . . . ”
By this time, Antenen had left the garage and was outside making calls on his cell phone. I figured he would not be pleased to hear this last bit of Grillo’s monologue. The captain could not seem to stop himself, to hide his enthusiasm for a job that outsiders might think borders on the barbaric. As if to combat such a judgment, and to emphasize the importance of all the equipment cluttering his garage, Grillo recalled his earlier days on Rikers.
“When I was in HDM [House of Detention for Men] in 1986, we had guys with their throats cut, guys with their ears cut off,” said Grillo, who became a jail guard in 1978. “It was a regular bloodbath. It was the worst jail on Rikers Island, and I was the dep[uty warden] in charge of security. Morale was terrible. All day long we were fighting.”
Today, there are fewer than a dozen stabbings and slashings a month on Rikers Island. But Grillo believes in being prepared. Perhaps the best evidence of his attitude was the armored personnel carrier parked in front of his garage. In recent years, Grillo has purchased enough military equipment to outfit a small army—two armored personnel carriers, a crash truck, and a 125-foot boom crane from the German military.
The captain says this equipment is for “when there is a serious incident on Rikers Island.” But these vehicles’ true purpose seemed more to do with giving guards another way to remind the prisoners who runs Rikers. Officers bring the crash truck to respond to minor disturbances in the jail yards. Like grade-school kids infatuated with go-karts, they joke about driving the tanks along the streets of Rikers in the middle of the night.
Perhaps this is the perfect snapshot of post-Cold War America: plenty of leftover military equipment and no one to fear except our own prisoners. After spending countless hours obsessing about the finer points of body armor and riot vests and stun shields, Grillo was eager to try out his purchases. But what “serious incidents” have actually required the use of his armored personnel carriers and boom crane and crash truck? “We haven’t had anything,” Grillo said. “It’s killing me it’s been so quiet.”