The New York City Council managed an extraordinary feat Monday morning. The council hosted beleaguered Correction Commissioner Martin Horn in its hearing room for two hours to ostensibly answer questions about a seemingly out-of-control teen jail at Rikers.
Somehow, the council members managed to not ask Horn a single relevant question about the fatal beating of Christopher Robinson (“Teen Murder at Rikers Jail,” November 18) or other violence at the nation’s largest complex of jails.
Some observers know the scandal-ridden jails where guards have been accused of pitting inmates against one another as the Rikers Island Fight Club. (See this April 8 Voice story with that title. And read “What the Jail Guard Saw,” July 3, 2007).
Not asking good questions at the hearing were a dozen council members, including Sara Gonzalez, Miguel Martinez, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Eric Gioia, Leroy Comrie, Joseph Addabbo, Anthony Como, and Letitia James. Alan Gerson and Lewis Fidler at least gave it a shot, but missed widely.
The hearing came a month after the brutal murder of Robinson in the Robert N. Davoren Center (RNDC) amid allegations that guards were negligent or even purposedly stood aside while thug inmates beat him to death.
It was a rare chance to grill Horn on one of his care and custody of about 900 adolescents in the system.
Horn did describe Robinson’s death as a “great tragedy.” He emphasized that most teen inmates are bored. The same could be said of observers at the hearing.
Maybe the council members just didn’t know what to ask — at times it seemed as if some of them knew almost nothing about the city’s famous jails. Perhaps, as one observer suggested, the council members didn’t want to annoy the commissioner, or perhaps they were simply unprepared for the meeting.
Perhaps Horn‚s 24-minute opening oratory deadened everyone’s senses. Or maybe it was the fact that Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was testifying in the next room.
Gerson got the closest to asking a pertinent, if basic, question: “I would like to follow up with a better understanding of how in a tightly controlled system, a teenager can still be subject to physical harm and what do you do to solve that?”
But Gerson roamed off that question into a colloquy with himself, and Horn never even had to reply.
Whatever the reason for the light-handed treatment of Horn, the hearing was a lost opportunity. The correction commissioner offered statistics to bolster his position that violence is not that bad in the teen housing areas, and the council did not bother to follow up.
And he was not asked the central question: Has he had any indication that staff allowed — or directed — inmates to assault each other in the past, and what did he do about it?
Instead, Horn trotted out an excuse typical of a government official under fire: A key program to help teens at Rikers was killed in the last round of budget cuts, and he hoped it would be resurrected.
The hearing did confirm one suspicion: The vast majority of guards receive limited training on how to deal with teen inmates.
Horn says his staff does hand-pick guards to receive additional tutelage. But there are only enough of those specially trained officers to cover less than 25 percent of the teen jail’s population.
As expected from anyone in his situation, Horn said he wanted funding for more guards and for more programs for the teens. “Historically, the city has not done enough to fund programs, and inmates are just plain bored,” he said. “In this age group, boredom leads to trouble.”
The latest “trouble” involved the beating death of Robinson, a young inmate who had violated probation on a technical matter and was not incarcerated for a violent incident.
He was savagely beaten in his own cell by three gang members, and he died a slow and painful death, lasting 12 hours before guards finally entered his cell and started tending to him. Robinson died of internal bleeding, and it is still unclear why he didn’t receive medical treatment immediately after the beating.
As the Voice reported last week, the case has sparked a broader probe into staff awareness of violence in the teen jail and into a practice in which jail guards select inmates to impose discipline in housing areas. The Voice has been reporting for the past year on murders, suicides, and other violence at the Rikers jails.
On Monday, it was only after Horn and a dozen of his staffers departed the hearing room, and the jail advocates took over, that the council actually roused itself to ask some legitimate questions and get some answers.
It emerged that jail staffing ratios are extremely low and are no different for teen inmates than for adults — one guard per 50 inmates.
New York is one of only two states that treat 16-year-olds accused of crimes as adults. What that means is that if you are 15, you are sent to a juvenile justice facility, where the staff ratio is much better: one staffer to eight kids. If you are 16, you get the chaos of RNDC.
“Teenagers are developmentally different from adults,” said Mishi Faruqee, director of youth justice programs at the Children’s Defense Fund. “More supervision and better training is the way to reduce abuse and violence.”
And council members heard frank talk about the scandal-plagued jail system.
“This death was not an isolated incident,” Faruqee told them. “Violence in RNDC is endemic.”
Mary Lynne Werlwas, a lawyer with Legal Aid’s Prisoners Rights Project, recited a litany of recent beatings, forcible sex incidents, and gang intimidation at RNDC.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 26, 2008