Roaming Rikers – Did You See Me on TV?


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Did You See Me on TV?

As paradoxical as it sounds, it’s possible to be arrested on Rikers Island. This is one of the functions of the Gang Intelligence Unit, a squad of 111 guards who track gang members and each month arrest 80 to 100 prisoners on charges ranging from torching a mattress to smuggling in cocaine to stabbing a correction officer.

Today, two guards inside the George Motchan Detention Center were preparing to arrest a young man for having a small razor blade. Gregory Borges bent forward, lifted one leg of his jeans, and slid a 9mm gun into his ankle holster. A few feet away, his partner, Joseph Sanabria, pulled the Velcro straps of his stab-proof vest tight around his torso.

Emmanuel Bailey, then the assistant deputy warden in charge of this unit, strolled over. “You got your mitts?” he asked his officers. “You got everything you need?” The mitts arrived on Rikers a couple years ago, a new weapon in Kerik’s campaign to seize control. Invented by a Nevada jail guard, the mitts are supposed to deter inmates from wielding razor blades or picking their handcuff locks. Sanabria grabbed a pair off a table and headed for the door.

Before joining his officers to oversee today’s arrest, Bailey showed me around his headquarters. There are 2100 alleged gang members in the city’s jails, he explained, and his unit’s main gangbusting tool is an elaborate computer-tracking system. Click a few times on a mouse in this room, and a gang member’s life story pops up on the screen—his height, weight, home address, mother’s name, most recent visitors, enemies, a photo of his tattoos.

The Bloods, Latin Kings, Ñetas, and Five Percenters are Rikers’ largest gangs, but there are more than 50 others with names reflecting New York City’s diversity, including the Chicano Nation, the Nigerian Express, the Trinitarians, the Jamaican Posse, and Dominican Power. As Bailey emphasized how well-trained and professional his unit was, a customized screen saver floated across one of his computer screens: Gang Intelligence/Arrest Unit AKA Blood Hunter.

The Gang Intelligence Unit is a favorite stop on any tour of the new-and-improved Rikers Island. For decades, a feeling of inferiority had hovered over Rikers Island, a sense that jail guards operated in the shadow of the NYPD. When the NYPD’s crime-fighting feats became front-page news across the country a few years ago, Rikers’ guards felt forgotten, neglected, snubbed.

Now the agency’s leaders like to talk about how police officers from Brooklyn to Alaska are calling them for help, for tips on tracking down gang members or deciphering their codes. In his office, Bailey pointed to a framed picture of himself from the May 1999 issue of POLICE, which hung on a wall next to his desk. “That’s a real police magazine,” he said, a grin spreading across his face. “And we made the cover.” The assistant deputy warden likes to tell visitors about his appearance in an A&E documentary, and he beams when inmates mention they saw him on television.

A few minutes later, Bailey pulled out his most compelling prop, a gory mosaic of Polaroids showing prisoners minutes after they have been sliced. Taped to the center of his “victims board” were the weapons of choice among Rikers residents: paper-thin razor blades. Girlfriends slide blades to their inmate boyfriends while kissing in the visiting room, and friends mail them into the jails hidden inside the perfume-ad inserts of glossy magazines.

(Sometimes razors arrive through the mail, addressed to unsuspecting prisoners. This is a favorite tactic of jealous men trying to move in on women after their boyfriends get sent to jail. Sending blades to a jailed boyfriend is an attempt to get rid of him—to get him in trouble so he spends extra time on Rikers or, better yet, gets shipped off to a faraway prison.)

Like prisoners everywhere, Rikers inmates use their rectums as a sort of suitcase for weapons, concealing one or two razor blades—or sometimes even 20 or 30—by “slamming” or “boofing” them. They wrap the blades in matchbook covers, tie pieces of thread or string around the cardboard, and then shove the weapons up their rectums. Before Rikers officials banned Nike Airs, inmates hid blades in the sneakers’ hollow chambers. And prisoners used Vaseline for slamming until officials made that item contraband too.

The dozens of photos tacked to Bailey’s bulletin board showed prisoners on their backs, blood pooling around their heads and oozing across white hospital sheets. The men wear the evidence of a recent slashing on their cheeks, necks, chins, foreheads. These are the slicer’s favorite targets; a scar stretching across the face will always be visible, forever marking the victim and advertising the attacker’s ferocity.

When the Bloods began warring with Rikers’ Latino gangs several years ago, many more prisoners walked around with scarred cheeks. Slashings became the quickest way for the Bloods to announce their arrival on the island; to join the gang, Rikers inmates had to “blood in,” or slash someone across the face. Such assaults became so routine that Bloods members referred to the act of cutting their fellow inmates as “putting in work.”

Certain types of slashings were so common that they too acquired names. There is the “buck-fifty,” a cut that needs 150 stitches. An ear-to-mouth slicing has the unfortunate name “smiley.” Cuts on the back, chest, or elsewhere on the body lack nicknames, since those targets are less desirable. “You get no points for the back of the head,” Bailey said. “Any facial cut is a bonus area because you can never cover your face.”

Bailey explained that the new weapon of choice is a scalpel, which is thinner than a razor blade and so less likely to set off a metal detector when stashed inside the rectum. Some assailants prefer the scalpel because it takes a second or two longer to feel its sting, just enough time to steal away unnoticed.

Now Bailey and I joined officers Sanabria and Borges outside, and we climbed into a Ford Taurus. We turned onto Hazen Street, the main road on Rikers, which curls around past most of the island’s jails, and one minute later arrived at the Anna M. Kross Center, one of Rikers’ largest facilities, which spreads over 40 acres. Long modular units added to the back of the jail make it look from above like a spider with its legs stretched out.

Sanabria stopped at the front entrance and ran in to drop off the officers’ guns, which are banned inside jails lest an inmate grab one. As we rode around to the back of the jail, the investigators grew quiet, and in the backseat Borges nervously fingered the pair’s walkie-talkies. “You can’t fall asleep and start getting routine,” he explained. “You have to remember anyone can be violent at any time.”

Bailey and his two officers strode through the jail’s intake area, past Pen #2, where nearly 40 men were crammed together in a space the size of a typical Manhattan living room, though its only furnishings were wooden benches and a toilet with no door. I estimated the temperature to be 90 degrees. The only fan blew from behind the officers’ desk. The stench of sweat hung heavy in the air, as did an overwhelming sense of frustration and defeat.

Some of the inmates had just been arrested; others had been up since 4:30 a.m. and were returning from a day at court. Several jockeyed for a spot near the front of the pen, where they would be visible to the officers and perhaps less likely to be attacked. Next door, Pen #3 was incongruously empty, save for the leavings of its most recent inhabitants: blankets, milk containers, a smattering of orange peels, one plastic slipper, half a roll of toilet paper, and one odorous puddle.

The inmates peered through their bars as Bailey strolled by. His uniform—a navy jacket with four gold buttons and a gold oak leaf pinned on each shoulder—announced his authority; the presence of an assistant deputy warden signaled that something out of the ordinary was about to happen.

The prisoners craned their necks to watch as a guard walked down the corridor toward the intake area, delivering German Gonzalez, a tall, slender inmate with a teardrop tattooed beneath his left eye. Gonzalez had been on Rikers for a couple weeks, ever since cops picked him up for selling heroin. He knew the island well. Like many addicts, he was a frequent visitor; over the past few years, he had made seven trips and spent a total of 398 nights in jail.

Counselors on Rikers Island used to help combat this cycling by easing the transition to post-jail life. They helped inmates navigate the maze of city agencies—sign up for food stamps, find a bed in a drug treatment program, track down a birth certificate to apply for Social Security, even re-enroll in high school. But over the last five years, the number of counselors in the city’s jails has plunged from 105 to 11, and Rikers’ revolving door continues to spin nonstop.

As Gonzalez entered the system this time, a guard accused him of having one razor blade in his pocket and another hidden in the sole of his sneaker. Possession of a razor blade is legal on the streets of New York City, of course, but carrying one onto Rikers Island can be a felony. Gonzalez looked more confused than menacing as Bailey and his two officers led the prisoner behind a plastic curtain. On Rikers, detainees wear their everyday clothes unless they get rearrested, and so the officers ordered Gonzalez to strip off his jersey and khaki shorts and climb into a slate-gray jumpsuit.

Gesturing to Gonzalez’s cuffed wrists, the assistant deputy warden said, “I’m sorry about this.”

“It’s all right,” said Gonzalez with a shrug. “Shit happens.” He paused, then added, “Am I going to court?”

A guard told Gonzalez in Spanish that they were taking him to the 41st police precinct in the Bronx. Borges stuffed Gonzalez’s clothes into a cotton sack, while Sanabria squatted to fasten a pair of clamps around the inmate’s ankles. Bailey asked Gonzalez if he’d heard about the agency’s new policy of arresting prisoners for crimes committed on Rikers Island.

“I’ve never been arrested, but I heard about it,” Gonzalez said.

“Did you see me on TV?” Bailey asked.

The prisoner looked puzzled, but he played along. “No,” he said. “I didn’t see you.”

Forty pairs of eyes followed Gonzalez as the officers steered him past the holding pens toward the exit. The arrest seemed intended as much to send a message to the prisoners in Pen #2 as it was to punish Gonzalez. (Four months later, this case against Gonzalez would be dismissed.) The commissioner had told me that because the number of violent incidents had plummeted, Rikers inmates no longer needed weapons for self-defense, but when I asked the prisoner why he’d wanted a razor, he rolled his eyes and stared at me like I was crazy. “Because I got to protect myself,” he said.

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