Rikers Fight Club: The Knockout Punch


For a year prior to the murder of 18-year-old Christopher Robinson on Rikers Island, the second and third highest officials in the city Correction Department had been receiving regular intelligence reports about gang violence and extortion—some of it encouraged by correction officers—in the jail for teenagers, documents obtained by the Voice show.

In weekly meetings and in monthly reports, the Chief of Department Carolyn Thomas and Chief of Facility Operations Patrick Walsh were briefed repeatedly about an alarming series of fights, assaults, and serious injuries connected with gang members controlling the phones, commissary, and access throughout the Robert N. Davoren Center, Correction Department sources say and records show.

The violence climaxed in October when a gang of inmates beat Robinson to death. Three correction officers have been indicted for organizing a “team,” inmates who carried out punishment beatings of other inmates, over a four-month period, in the unit where Robinson died. The officers trained the inmates to use wrestling holds and punch and kick their victims in the torso, where the injuries would be hidden by clothing, the indictment alleges.

At the officers’ behest, the “team” would ask inmates whether they were “with it.” If the inmates said no, they were beaten. In exchange, the indictment says, the inmates were allowed free rein to extort phone, food, and access privileges from other inmates.

Just one month prior to Robinson’s murder, an 18-year-old inmate named Alicedes Polance suffered a broken eye socket in a beating by a “team” of inmates in the same unit while those same indicted officers were on duty, records show. Polance’s attackers beat him after he said no to the question, “Are you down with it?” In the aftermath, however, DOC officials failed to uncover the alleged scheme in time to prevent the fatal Robinson assault.

In the first 10 months of 2008, 39 inmates at RNDC suffered serious facial injuries—broken noses, broken jaws, or fractured eye sockets, records show. Twenty-eight of those inmates were teenagers. Twenty of those cases directly involved gang inmates attempting to control or extort other inmates.

Again and again, the ominous question, “Are you with it?” appears in the reports. On March 23, 2008, an 18-year-old inmate was asked, “Are you with it?” before his orbital was broken. A fight on May 19, which led to a broken nose, had “earmarks of control,” a report says.

The investigation into an assault on May 3, which led to a broken jaw, found allegations that an inmate was extorting all new inmates. An attack on June 15, which led to a fractured nose and eye socket, was sparked after the victim was asked, “Are you with it?”

The investigation into a June 26 fight that resulted in a broken eye socket determined that one inmate got to use the phone all the time, while the 16-year-old victim never did. An inmate who suffered a broken jaw on July 15 was told that only Bloods gang members used the phone.

Moreover, on 40 occasions between July 1 and October 31, guards ordered unit lockdowns because of violence sparked by extortion or attempts to control the phones, commissary, and access. That’s one every three days.

On July 14, for example, three inmates told a fourth that he was not allowed to use the phone at 9 p.m. The inmate refused to comply and was beaten. An inmate alleged on July 15 that three inmates told him that they run the house and refused to allow him to use the phone on certain days. On July 18, an inmate was assaulted after he told others that he was not “with it.” On July 31, an inmate was beaten after he refused to be “with it.”

The list goes on and on.

For some perspective on the numbers, the Voice contacted Steve J. Martin, a consultant on the use of force in jails who is based in Austin, Texas.

Martin says 39 fractures in a 10-month period is off the charts: “That’s an extremely high number any way you cut it,” he says. “It’s evidence that there’s something incredibly wrong in that institution.”

Martin says he recently studied a jail system in which just one fracture was recorded over a six-month period. “If you’re having more than one or two fractures in any 30-day period, you should be bringing in major oversight,” he says. “You should be all over it.”

In addition to the drumbeat of broken bones, correction officials had also seen a number of newspaper articles, including stories by the Voice, suggesting that there was a problem in RNDC, dating back to the summer of 2007.

And the department had already been embarrassed by the indictment in February 2008 of Lloyd Nicholson, a correction officer who also used inmates as enforcers at RNDC. He called his operation “The Program.”

Every Friday, Walsh met with intelligence division investigators and wardens to discuss issues at individual jails. Time and again, investigators highlighted the incidents at RNDC involving extortion by gang inmates or attempts to control privileges, and suggested that a disturbing trend was developing, three correction sources said.

But Walsh, the sources say, treated each incident as isolated and failed to act on the overall problem. He merely ordered the attackers to be transferred and handed out infractions. He also treated stabbing and slashing incidents with much more seriousness than the broken bones. And few of the assault cases resulted in criminal charges.

“He used a Band-Aid approach,” a senior correction official says. “They would deal with the incident, but not see the big picture: that it was widespread throughout the jail. No one questioned what actions the COs took.”

Meanwhile, the serious injury reports were coming across Chief of Department Carolyn Thomas’s desk, one after another, but it remains unclear whether she did anything to specifically address the problem. And it remains unclear whether DOC Commissioner Martin Horn himself saw the injury reports or was briefed on them.

The sheer volume of serious injury reports raises new questions about exactly what top correction officials did to prevent violence and inmate extortion at RNDC.

“They failed to address the culture of the adolescent housing areas,” a senior correction official tells the Voice. “They needed to break that culture and make this kind of thing unacceptable, but no one put it together. It’s all on management and a lack of leadership.”

In a lengthy response to Voice questions, Correction Department spokesman Stephen Morello insisted that Commissioner Horn not only publicly identified the problem in 2007, but initiated some two dozen system-wide policy changes and new programs to address it.

Morello said that many of the policy changes Horn advocated in 2007 in testimony to the city Board of Correction—including the right to monitor inmates’ phone conversations—were designed to combat problems like inmate extortion and bullying.

“The list of actions we have taken both prior to and since Robinson includes plenty of steps the department has taken to address violence, including, specifically, in adolescent housing units,” Morello wrote in response to a Voice query.

Morello cited department statistics, which he said show that serious injuries among teens at RNDC was steady at 32 per year from 2005 to 2007, and declined to 27 in 2008. He noted that the Robinson murder was the first in the city jail system in four years.

Morello also attacked the Voice‘s reporting on the subject, suggesting that this newspaper and other media were being unfair to the commissioner.

The spokesman did not directly answer a range of questions, including whether Horn assigned more staff to RNDC, whether correction staffers were told not to tolerate extortion, whether inmates were told that such behavior would not be tolerated, or whether they ordered a crackdown on such behavior prior to Robinson’s death. Morello refused to address questions regarding Walsh and Thomas.

At RNDC, Morello listed 32 changes that he says address the problem.

A Voice review and discussion with correction sources indicate that many of them were done following the Robinson murder, not before. Indeed, it was only after Robinson’s death that Walsh ordered a broader review of the incidents, which resulted in a report, obtained by the Voice, that detailed the problem. This report, completed four days after Robinson’s murder, disclosed information that could have been learned at any point in the preceding 18 months: There was a specific five-tier hierarchy to the extortion scheme, ranging from the bottom tier of inmates who were “with it” to the top tier of the “team.” The setup resembled something out of the world of organized crime. The hierarchy existed throughout RNDC, the report also revealed. Despite the warnings, correction sources say, some investigators have themselves been questioned about what they said about the problem, in what appears to some as an effort to essentially kill messengers who first sounded alarm bells.

When officers Michael McKie and Khalid Nelson were indicted last month, correction officials insisted that guard complicity in the beatings was limited to one RNDC unit, 1 Main, and they claimed they could never visualize a worse case.

But statements from some 300 inmate interviews conducted after Robinson’s death indicate that “teams” were common in RNDC. Beatings by those teams were also common. One after another, dozens of inmates said they heard the phrase, “Are you with it?” and heard of the “team” or “The Program.”

Twenty inmates claimed that they were part of a team. Forty-six inmates said members of a “team” beat them at one point or another. And at least four inmates claimed that guards were complicit in other units. One of those inmates gave the following detailed account of the atmosphere under McKie and Nelson in 1 Main: “Most of the problems started with the CO,” he said. “He would open the cell while you were sleeping, and he would let the team come in your cell. The team would put you in a chicken-wing position and they would beat you.”

The same inmate talked of a similar setup in a different RNDC unit: “When I was housed in 5 Main, the officer would ask you if you were ‘with it.’ If you were not, he would lock everyone in and let the team out, and he would watch the team beat you. He used to like watching inmates beat me up because I never fought back. This happened two months ago, and he still calls me a pussy when he sees me.”

The violence creates a pervasive atmosphere of fear, says Martin, the correction consultant. “Whether you’re talking about a vulnerable youth or a tough youth, every kind of behavior is dominated by the fear factor,” he says.

Today, Walsh has been shifted to a senior post where he has less responsibility, but retains the same salary. Thomas remains as Chief of Department.

A call to Thomas’s office was transferred to the Correction Department spokesman’s office. Walsh did not return a phone call to his office.