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Violence and Corruption at Rikers Island; Called a “Battle Camp for Kids”

Violence and Corruption at Rikers Island; Called a “Battle Camp for Kids”

by David M. Reutter

While there have been no escapes and only two suicides in the past year at New York City’s Rikers Island, the nation’s largest jail system – which houses 13,900 prisoners – is under scrutiny due to an increasing level of violence at the facility. Prison officials deny there is a significant problem.

“If it was so bad, they would be killing each other, they would be killing themselves, and there would be escapes,” said Martin F. Horn, Commissioner of the New York Dept. of Correction. “This is a safe jail system.”

Statistics, however, show that violence at the facility rose dramatically when compared with the previous year. Use of force injuries jumped from 1,079 to 1,565. During searches, the number of weapons found increased from 1,830 to 2,174. For the third year in a row, the number of violent incidents among prisoners was over 8,000; the number of stabbings or slashings increased from 35 to 44.

The surge in violence has at least one veteran jail supervisor concerned. “It’s indicative of less control on the part of the DOC staff,” the unidentified supervisor said. “When inmates make more weapons, it means they don’t feel safe. When officers use more force, it means they don’t feel safe.” Of greater concern is violence in the area at Rikers where juvenile offenders are housed.

The statistics and rhetoric make it easy to overlook the fact that many of the violent incidents at the jail may be the result of guards using prisoner gangs to maintain control of their units. “The inmates tell us it’s a really common set-up,” said Andrew Still, a lawyer who represented prisoner Donald Jackson. “In a lot of the houses, the correction officers use the house gang as enforcers and pay them with cigarettes and extra commissary.”

After prisoner Kirk Fisher walked up to Jackson and punched him in the head, Jackson dropped like a rock. His head struck a piece of metal sticking up from the floor, which caused him to develop a blood clot that required surgery to save his life.

Fisher, who was sentenced to prison for the assault, initially said he had attacked Jackson because Jackson had stolen a cookie. In February 2008, however, he gave a sworn account that claimed a guard told him to assault Jackson. “[He] pulled me to the side and explained to me that Jackson was running around and thieving.” The guard told him, “Before you do anything, I’m going to go to the other side and [then] do what you got to do.”

Fisher also stated that he was allowed to run the unit. “I was the house captain and it was my job to enforce certain rules. Anybody that acted up in the house, it was my job to enforce certain rules. Anybody that acted up in the house, it was my job to put them in line,” said Fisher. As for the stolen cookie explanation, “It was a lie to gas myself up to hit the dude.” Jackson won a $500,000 settlement from New York City for his injuries. [See: PLN, June 2007, p.41].

In April 2008, a New York grand jury indicted Rikers guard Lloyd Nicholson, 35, on numerous charges of gang assault, assault and official misconduct. He used a group of teenage prisoners as enforcers in his “program.”

“Basically, it was like the movie A Few Good Men,” a source told The Village Voice. “Either you were in the program or not. He thought the ones who weren’t abiding with the program were misbehaving, and he used other inmates to discipline them.”

The indictment charges that Nicholson had six youths beat up two others on June 10, 2007, for refusing to obey orders. He told them to avoid hitting the victims in the face so there would be no telltale marks. One of the prisoners who was assaulted suffered a collapsed lung, then was denied medical treatment for several hours.

Nicholson tried to avoid reporting the injury until the next shift. He only relented after another prisoner convinced him that the injured youth desperately needed medical attention. Nicholson told his gang they would get the blame. “Some of you are going to go down for this,” he said.

Indeed, the six juveniles involved in the incident were charged in October 2007 with gang assault. The indictment also charged that Nicholson used a “wooden stick” to beat another prisoner in May 2007. He faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

“Young people tell me when they go in there, the culture is such that the kids control the jail,” stated attorney Michael Hueston. “The [guards] know this happens and they look the other way.” Hueston represents an 18-year-old whose jaw was broken in three places by other prisoners while a guard watched without interfering or calling for assistance.

Another 18-year-old, Ricardo Marsden, said he was assaulted by six prisoners on May 2, 2008. The lawsuit he filed alleges he suffered a “black eye, bruises all over body, leg, back, blood in my ears, busted lip … Officer stood there watching.”

Every year, prisoners from Rikers Island file about 1,300 claims against the City of New York. Over the last five years it has cost the City $61.7 million to settle those lawsuits. In 2006, the City settled a class action suit brought by prisoners who were injured by Rikers guards; that settlement cost the taxpayers $2.2 million. [See: PLN, May 2006, p.1].

The City is currently defending itself against a lawsuit brought by 10 prisoners who allege two dozen Rikers guards rampaged through their unit in October 2005. After a prisoner attacked a guard, it became a free-for-all. The prisoners were beaten while guards shouted, “Whose house is this? Our house!” One minute of the melee was caught on camera. A guard then turned the camera off for the next 30 minutes. See: Prude v. City of New York, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:06-cv-03024-RJS.

Recent events reveal that Rikers Island guards have a tendency to be more than observers of the criminal element; rather, they are sometimes part of it. On April 24, 2008, seven current and former guards were arrested for accepting money to smuggle drugs into the jail. A 16-month investigation that involved detectives posing as prisoners’ families resulted in jail guards accepting between $100 and $1,500 to smuggle marijuana, simulated heroin and cocaine to prisoners. The guards were charged with multiple counts of bribery, drug possession and promoting prison contraband.

Guards Tamar Peebles and Daniel Marin face life sentences. The other indicted guards, Anthony Narcisse, Andrew Plaskett, Daniel Bethel and William Delgado, face up to seven years while Joseph Constantino faces 15 years if convicted. The charges remain pending.

Even when prisoners seek help for their addictions at Rikers, they are unable to avoid the influence of drugs. On October 4, 2007, Juan Delarosa sold $100 worth of cocaine and some Percocets to an undercover officer. Four months later Delarosa was arrested at work.

Delarosa, 56, was employed as a drug-treatment counselor at Rikers. When he was arrested at the jail gate he had 109 packets of heroin labeled “Black Gold” in his jacket pocket and wallet, plus two baggies of cocaine. Drugs were also discovered in Delarosa’s office at Rikers.

Despite such arrests, reports of increased violence, numerous lawsuits stemming from injuries caused by assaults from both staff and prisoners, and the high cost of these actions to the City, jail officials remain in denial. “We believe that such behavior by our correction officers is very infrequent,” remarked Stephen Morello, a Department of Corrections spokesman.

DeAvery Irons of the Juvenile Justice Project told the City Council a different story. “Young people describe an atmosphere characterized by daily fights, power struggles, and intimidation.” The environment at Rikers, he said, is a “battle camp for kids.”

At least one recent battle proved fatal. Investigators are looking into whether Rikers guards caused a lapse in security or even looked the other way when juvenile offenders beat another youth to death at the jail on Oct. 17, 2008. Christopher Robinson, 18, was being held on a minor parole violation. He reportedly died due to internal bleeding after being punched, stomped and kicked by three other gang-affiliated prisoners.

Two Rikers guards were reassigned as part of the ensuing internal investigation, which is ongoing. The beating was not caught on surveillance video, and Dept. of Corrections officials initially told Robinson’s family that he had apparently died in his sleep. The family has since filed a $20 million wrongful death claim against the City.

Sources: The Village Voice, New York Daily News, Associated Press

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Related legal case

Prude v. City of New York