A dispute last week over a grilled cheese sandwich of all things led to a massive fight between two gangs in a city jail that was allowed by correction staff to continue for well over an hour without intervention, the Voice has learned.
See more: Our Cover Story, “Rikers Fight Club”
One inmate–27-year-old drug suspect Roberto Rivera–had a broken broom handle jammed into his eye socket, and two other inmates were slashed in the incident, which took place in the George R. Vierno Center on Monday, August 5, at about 9:20 p.m., correction sources tell the Voice. A fourth inmate was punctured with a shank, possibly a repurposed kitchen knife.
As the brawl involving as many as 38 inmates went on and on, correction staff actually captured it on video, even as they were doing nothing to stop it, the sources said. At one point, inmates banged on security glass and begged staff to intervene, but they were ignored.
And here’s the kicker: the video is being used for training purposes, the sources said.
“The big question is what’s the reason for the long delay in the response,” a correction source says. “I don’t understand how use this as a training tool. … These individuals are fighting for more than an hour and you don’t do anything?”
“My client was very badly injured, and we’re looking into it,” says Rivera’s defense lawyer, Jeffrey Chabrowe. “The most upsetting thing is apparently the guards did nothing as my client almost died.”
A Correction Department spokesman tells us this: “There was an incident late in the evening of August 5 involving a number of inmates in a high custody housing unit at GRVC. Additional security staff responded within minutes to assist the assigned officers in the housing unit. All of the participating inmates were identified and disciplined. Several inmates and no staff were injured. The reason for the incident remains under investigation.”
The fight and the major breach of security protocol began amid simmering discontent over the food service arrangement in the unit. A group of Trinitarians–a Dominican gang–were upset that a faction of Crips–largely African-American–had control over the distribution of food. (Usually, in these situations, representatives of both groups, or neutrals, would have had this duty.)
On the evening in question, correction sources say, the Trinis wanted to make grilled cheese sandwiches on the unit’s hot plate, but correction staff wasn’t allowing them to do it. They only allowed the Crips to do it.
The Trinis began yelling, and fighting broke out. Several Crips armed themselves with broken broom handles and began stabbing at the Trinis. Homemade weapons made an appearance.
Rivera, who has a prior conviction for a slashing, is being held for selling five bags of crack cocaine to an undercover police officer last February in upper Manhattan. During his arrest, he allegedly punched a detective in the face in an attempt to escape.
During the melee, Rivera was stabbed in one eyes and slashed in the back of the head and the chin. “It’s like they were trying to cut him from ear to ear,” a source says. Two other inmates were slashed on their faces, and one suffered the puncture wound from a shank.
Rivera’s mates, evidently Trinitarians, grabbed him and rushed him into cell 13 to defend him. The fight spread throughout the housing area.
A so-called Probe team responded and entered the housing area. Meanwhile, the Crips went into the day room and grabbed chairs to use as weapons. One officer may have been struck with a chair. The Probe team exited without quelling the fight.
Some inmates were banging on the security window, begging staff to come in or let them out to safety.
After about 52 minutes of fighting–which is an eternity–Rivera and the other injured inmate were bleeding so badly that the combatants actually called a truce and allowed them to leave the battleground. Rivera may have actually pulled the broken broom handle out of his injured eye.
And, the fighting continued, all of it being videotaped. “It seems to me they just decided to let them fight,” a correction source says. “It’s not like there was a shortage of response, but they stayed outside.”
To put this in context, typically, as soon as a fight of any seriousness starts, the Emergency Services Unit–or “turtles,” for their heavy armor–roll in and take down the combatants within a much shorter period of time. No “turtles” were called this time.
“Once they are called, it takes ESU 10 minutes, ” a retired Correction official says. “There’s no excuse. You do what you have to do to stop it. Someone could have been killed. It’s a lack of leadership. This is a maximum security facility.”
The source adds: “It’s like they were so nervous to take any action at all that they just stood there. They didn’t want to go in because they were saying they’ll just get charges.”
Another source disputes this, insisting the first priority was to remove the dozen or so noncombatants, and that explains the delay in putting down the fighting.
In the end, the inmates started to get weary. A correction captain ordered the inmates to lock in to their cells. The Crips refused, unless the Trinis were removed from the unit. More than 90 minutes had passed.
Only then did correction staff and ESU enter the unit.
In the aftermath, sources say, investigators open a case against the inmates. But it does not appear that any correction staff have been disciplined for their failure to intervene.
As investigators began to try to sort out the incident, inmates told them, “Where were you guys? We expected you to come in.”
The inmates were transferred to other jails. Rivera was given medical care and sent to the North Infirmary Command.