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The Lords of Rikers

The juvenile unit of the New York City jail is a survival-of-the-fittest finishing school for the roughest kids in New York. And an upcoming case alleges the guards run the show.

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Illustration by Jeffrey Smith  

“One Main, House of Pain.”

That’s what inmates have called the most dangerous wing of what is considered the most dangerous facility on Rikers, the juvenile-detention building known as the Robert N. Davoren Center, or RNDC. The place is a kind of sick mirror image of a freshman dorm in college. Everyone here is between the ages of 16 and 18, and instead of SAT scores and high-school transcripts, these teenagers have commissary accounts and public defenders. The vast majority are minorities from broken homes in public housing, awaiting robbery and murder charges. They have all the ordinary problems of youth: impaired judgment, poor impulse control, and invincibility complexes, distorted and amplified by hard life on the streets. Within the facility, the power dynamics are akin to those in Lord of the Flies, but, as these are teenagers, often even more perverse. They go to war over items like Pop-Tarts and cookies, arm themselves with toothbrushes sharpened into daggers, and send one another to the hospital. This juvenile jail is a gateway to the state prison system and also where the adult selves of these young people are being formed.

Recently, Rikers has been an especially explosive environment. Last year, the city reported 84 assaults overall against Correction officers, the highest number in the last decade. The Correction-officers union was dubious about that figure; using a different formula, it found the number of assaults against officers to be nearly double that amount. At RNDC, one captain nearly died in a fight and had his jaw broken in two places. In another facility, an officer had part of his thumb bitten off. “It’s getting to the point that they’re cutting staff and they’re taking dangerous chances on the proverb of saving money,” says one RNDC captain. “I got two decades on the shelf. I had a broken hand last year, and I got my nose fractured this year.”

At Rikers, the uptick in violent incidents has created another problem: Inmates are not punished for breaking jail rules because the traditional discipline tool doesn’t work; the cells in the Bing, the punitive-segregation building, are routinely filled. At RNDC, officers have found a rough-and-ready solution to this problem, which is, as they say, to separate the sheep from the wolves. The wolves are all sent to one unit: One Main.

No one, neither guard nor prisoner, wants to come here. The inmates are all high risk, and many have gang affiliations. With fewer staff monitoring the housing areas, among a host of other complicating factors, officers have been charged with deputizing violent teenagers to keep order for them and falsifying documents to cover it up. This muddled relationship—“the devil’s bargain,” as former prison commissioner Marty Horn calls it—can easily get out of hand as the inmates take over the asylum. “There’s nothing you can do, or anyone else, to make them stop fighting,” says the captain. “They are kids, and they want to fight each other. That’s what they do.” And some are stronger than others. “Jail is like the ocean,” says a deputy warden. “You got your bluefish, your barracudas, and your great whites.”

Christopher Robinson was like many of the teenagers who end up at One Main, a hard-luck kid from the roughest part of Brooklyn. He was not a high-risk inmate. He arrived in late August of 2008. He’d been sent because he’d violated his parole for, of all things, showing up at a new job as an overnight stock boy at Staples when he was supposed to be home. He’d been arrested a few months earlier for an alleged assault; before that, he’d served a stint at a juvenile facility upstate for stealing cell phones and a computer. Among the kids that Robinson hung around with in Brooklyn, Rikers is a kind of finishing school. A rough streetwise kid from the projects expects to be sent there, hears the stories, learns the jail’s rituals from older boys. And for Robinson, Rikers ran in the family. Israel Rivera, his father, spent time there on the way upstate for a murder he’d committed at age 15, two months after Christopher was born.

“When I was growing up, when a dude went to jail, it was the thing to do,” Rivera tells me. “You was a somebody. To be a man, you had to go to prison.”

While Christopher’s mother, Charnel, doted on him, there was little she could do to counteract the gravity of the streets. Some said her son was a Crip. “I knew Ice,” a friend told Correction investigators, using Robinson’s nickname. “We met at Crip meetings at a Brooklyn park.” Robinson was a tough kid, but he was still partly a child, too. His mother told me that after he came home from the juvenile facility upstate, he would try to climb into her bed. When she told him he couldn’t, he slept on the floor beside her bed.


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