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Rikers Guards Charged With Using Juvenile Prisoners to Run Extortion Ring

On January 22, 2009, Rikers Island, New York guards Michael “Mack” McKie and Khalid “Nel” Nelson were charged with enterprise corruption after it was learned they were using a group of prisoners to enforce discipline and extort other offenders at the Rikers facility for juveniles. A third guard, Denise “Mama A” Albright, was charged with assault, conspiracy and sundry other crimes.

The three came under investigation after 18-year-old Rikers prisoner Christopher Robinson was beaten to death on October 18, 2008. [See: PLN, Jan. 2009, p.20]. Juvenile offenders at the facility have claimed the three indicted guards ran a criminal enterprise known as “the Program.” Prosecutors agreed – according to the Bronx District Attorney, the jail was an “incubator for violent criminal activity sanctioned by adults in positions of authority.”

Prisoners were used as enforcers under the guards’ direction to extort other offenders into giving up their commissary and phone privileges. Those who failed to follow the Program were beaten into compliance while the guards orchestrated a cover-up. McKie and Nelson were also accused of showing their enforcers, called “the Team,” how to subdue and attack other prisoners in ways that could not be detected, such as not hitting them in the face. Members of the Team would dictate who could come out of their cells, sit in the dayroom, or even use the bathroom. The situation was described as a “gladiator school” or a scenario reminiscent of Lord of the Flies.

However, attorney Joe Jackson, who represents McKie and Albright, pointed out that his clients were not even at the jail when Robinson was beaten to death. He said the accusations were “predicated upon inmates who now, in an effort to save themselves, are pointing fingers,” and called the indictments a “web of lies.”

Then-New York City Correction Commissioner Martin F. Horn, who resigned last July, insisted that the misconduct was isolated to just one section of the Robert N. Davoren Center (RNDC) at Rikers, and that steps had been taken before the incident to prevent similar problems.

“We were both proactive and aware of bullying and extortionate behaviors among the adolescents at RNDC and in other jails,” Horn said. “That is why, long prior to the Robinson homicide, we took steps to prevent such behavior.”

Jail officials knew about such problems in part because the exact same scenario had occurred at the facility before, when Rikers guard Lloyd Nicholson was indicted in February 2008 for using a group of juveniles as enforcers to assault other prisoners. Nicholson’s scheme was also called “the Program.” [See: PLN, Jan. 2009, p.20]. Yet evidently not much changed at the jail after Nicholson was charged.

Within the first ten months of 2008, there were 39 reported assaults at RNDC that resulted in serious facial injuries such as broken noses, jaws or eye sockets. Most of those incidents involved juvenile offenders and gang members exerting control over other prisoners. “That’s an extremely high number any way you cut it,” said Steve J. Martin, an Austin, Texas-based use-of-force consultant. “It’s evidence that there’s something incredibly wrong in that institution.”

Extortion and abuse have been part of the Rikers jail system for years. In 2003, prisoner Donald Jackson was beaten until he “was bleeding badly, and unconscious.” According to a subsequent lawsuit, guards not only looked the other way but “the officers delayed in obtaining medical treatment” for him. The city settled his claim for $500,000. [See: PLN, Jan. 2009, p.20; June 2007, p.41].

Schmi Caballero was beaten after a guard became angry with him for spending too long on the phone with his mother. The guard ordered another prisoner to “discipline” Caballero with a broomstick; he was left with a broken nose and blurred vision. The case settled for $97,500 in March 2008. See: Caballero v. City of New York, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:07-cv-06357-RMB.

At least seven other federal lawsuits have been filed over comparable incidents. Attorney Julia P. Kuan is litigating two claims currently pending against jail officials for prisoner assaults at Rikers. According to Kuan, “The city’s been on notice because these lawsuits have been pending for quite some time, and the fact patterns are so similar.”

For example, one month before Robinson was beaten to death, RNDC prisoner Alicedes Polanco, 18, was severely assaulted by a group of offenders involved in the Program. “My right eye socket was broken,” he said. “My jaw was hit, the right side of my ribs was all bruised.” Polanco has since sued the city. See: Polanco v. City of New York, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:09-cv-10131-RMB.

Another lawsuit was filed in February 2009 by Tyreek Shuford, for a beating he received in 2007. Shuford was attacked by prisoner “enforcers” at RNDC with the guards’ permission, then not allowed to go to the infirmary for two days. He was later beaten by the guards themselves. His suit settled in October 2009 for $373,300 paid by the city, plus $1,500 from guard Jason Davis and $200 from guard Darlene Sanders. See: Shuford v. City of New York, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:09-cv-00945-PKC.

Jonathan S. Abady, Shuford’s attorney, said the jail was infected with “an intractable culture of permissiveness [by guards] coupled with a disturbing attitude of denial by higher level supervisors.” Attorney Joel Berger, who represented Caballero, added, “Sometimes the officers are afraid to do something about it.”

But that fear appears to be fading. Some corrections officials provided the New York Times with documents verifying that jail administrators had known about the problem for years. The Village Voice reported that “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” up to a year before Robinson was murdered.

Twelve prisoners have been indicted in connection with Robinson’s death; three face manslaughter charges. McKie and Nelson are currently being held on $200,000 bond, and could face up to 25 years in prison if convicted. Albright has a $50,000 bond and faces up to 15 years. “They didn’t turn a blind eye to violence. They authorized and directed it,” stated Assistant DA James Goward. Nevertheless, none of the guards were charged with Christopher Robinson’s death.

On May 11, 2009, as a direct result of Robinson’s death, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg approved a law that requires the Dept. of Correction to publicly release statistics related to violence involving juvenile offenders, whether caused by guards or other prisoners.

In August 2009, Robinson’s mother, Charnel, filed a wrongful death suit in Bronx Supreme Court; the case was later removed to federal court. She is seeking $20 million. “The pain of not having my son hasn’t gotten any easier,” she said. “I have no choice but to seek justice.” See: Robinson v. City of New York, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:09-cv-07446-LTS. Robinson had been incarcerated at Rikers on a minor parole violation. He was asked to work late at his job, and missed a curfew.

Jail officials say they have since made improvements at RNDC. “The list of actions we have taken both prior to and since Robinson[’s death] includes plenty of steps the department has taken to address violence, including, specifically, in adolescent housing units,” said Dept. of Correction spokesman Stephen Morello.

As if Rikers didn’t have enough problems, on December 29, 2009, the New York Post reported that guard Nadja Green had been disciplined after jail officials found she was sleeping on the job. The evidence was compelling: One of her co-workers had taken a photo of her asleep, leaning back in a chair with her mouth open, while a nearby prisoner flashed a peace sign. The picture had been e-mailed to the Post. The guard who took the photo, Claudel Barrau, also was disciplined. “We do not expect this type of behavior or performance from our officers, nor do we tolerate it,” said Morello.

At least when the guards at Rikers are asleep they aren’t abusing prisoners or directing violent extortion rings. That behavior shouldn’t be tolerated either.

Sources:,,, New York Post,, New York Daily News, Associated Press,

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Related legal cases

Shuford v. City of New York

No other information is currently available.

Caballero v. City of New York

No other information is currently available.