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The Lords of Rikers

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Illustration by Jeffrey Smith  

Like fight. The call “P.O.D.’s” is like the opening bell in a prize fight. “They’ll say, ‘P.O.D.’s!’ and then you see the two weakest guys in the dorm start fighting,” says the RNDC captain. “You see these two little retards that weigh 80 pounds each trying to fight each other.”

At Rikers, violence is a kind of currency, and whether people are afraid of you is inseparable from your status. The officers nominally run things, but they know that if the inmates aren’t afraid of them, they may have problems. And while violent criminals are always dangerous, the type of officer guarding them has changed in recent years. Veterans now complain that seasoned old-timers like themselves have retired and that, because of budget cuts, their replacements no longer get the proper training they need. What’s more, the city now requires Correction officers to have at least two years of college, a rule some say has weeded out many streetwise recruits. Now nearly half of all officers are women, who are sometimes outmatched physically.

Veterans also complain about the widespread use of video cameras throughout Rikers. The cameras are supposed to keep unruly officers from getting out of line, but they also prevent some officers from disciplining inmates. The cameras do not have audio tracks, and when disputes arise, it’s impossible for investigators to determine who said what. “The inmates play to the cameras,” the RNDC captain says. Officers fear suspensions, which has created an atmosphere in which officers might be inclined to have inmates keep order.

What’s more, the seniority system is designed in such a way that the most inexperienced officers are assigned to work the most dangerous details. The new officers are also asked to control violent teenagers who have ever-shifting allegiances to gangs both inside and outside Rikers. An RNDC captain reels off gangs in the building like items on a shopping list: “You got your Latin Kings, your Netas, your Crips, your Bloods, your MS-13s, and your skinheads. And then we mix them all up and you throw them together.” Each gang has its own code, its own secret language and manuals. Walking down the corridors, officers hear inmates shout out “Eighty-eight,” a Blood code that means a captain is nearby, or “Forty-four,” a Crip code that means the same thing.

The most powerful gang on Rikers are the Bloods, and the Bloods network is so vast it’s hard to keep track of the various sects: Goon Bloods, Gorilla Stone Bloods, Brim Bloods, Desperado Bloods. Often, one Blood will approach another to confirm his Bloods status. “G-checking,” it’s called. The Blood will deliver the phrase “What that red be like?”

If the Bloods member is legit, he responds, “That red be like five-poppin’, six-droppin’, Crip-killin’ to my casket, five alive, six must die, rest in peace to O.G. Tye, 50/50 Love, Fuck 50/50 Love, that’s the old laws that go against Bloods …”

Other factions have influence, too. The Trinitarios, a Dominican gang, are considered one of the fastest-growing in New York and are known for their weapon of choice—machetes. Another Rikers power base is the Nation of Islam, which has long offered protection to Muslim devotees throughout the state and federal prison system.

For a young Correction officer, learning the ropes can be punishing. Michael McKie was assaulted by inmates three times—once he was sent to the hospital. He put in for transfers out of RNDC, but the requests were repeatedly denied. He and his wife, Sharmaine, talked about moving away with their two young daughters if a transfer didn’t come through. By the fall of 2008, he was desperate. His fifth anniversary at Correction was approaching, and with it a major bonus, bringing his salary to roughly $84,000. But was the increase in pay worth it anymore? McKie’s high-school basketball coach Eisenberg remembers getting panicked calls from him. “He’d be like, ‘This place is crazy, I got to get out of here.’ ”

“I got to get out of here,” Christopher Robinson told his mother when she visited him in Rikers shortly before his death. It was unclear when he was leaving. A hearing for his parole violation had been rescheduled several times, and a two-week stay at the end of the summer had turned into nearly two months in custody and now it’s the fall. Violent incidents were reported nearly every day throughout the facility. One detainee was beaten over the head with a telephone receiver. Another had a finger severed. Four others suffered “orbital fractures” from being punched in the face. On September 19, 2008, a month before Robinson’s death, a Legal Aid assistant faxed a letter to senior Correction officials to alert them to a 16-year-old housed in Modular 3 Upper North who “was asked by the inmates in his housing area if he was ‘with the Program.’ ” The teen said no, and “was jumped by several inmates.” After the fight was broken up, the inmate alleged, an officer ordered the 16-year-old to put his hands on his head, then “struck him in the mouth. [The teen] was escorted into the vestibule and elbowed in the eye and struck several times with a stick.” On September 21, 2008, two days after the warning letter was faxed, five other inmates in a nearby unit were attacked “because they would not be down with the team,” an inmate said.


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