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The Lords of Rikers

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Down a few floors and through the long halls of RNDC, Michael McKie and partner Khalid Nelson had their hands full in One Main. On that same September day, an inmate in their custody, Alcides Polanco, a teenager awaiting trial for murder, claimed he was approached by another inmate inside his cell and asked, “Are you wit’ it?” He said no, and a fight broke out. Afterward, Polanco was taken to the medical center (but not before he made his way to the dayroom and assaulted one of his attackers) and then to the emergency room with an orbital fracture. Investigators questioned Polanco and other inmates, and by comparing these accounts with those the officers had given, they began to suspect that the officers were, at the very least, looking the other way when inmates were assaulted.

A month later, in Modular 3 Upper North, Christopher Robinson got into a fight. He and several others were alleged to have attacked another teenager. The detainee claimed he was asked, “Do you respect me?” When he laughed, Robinson and others jumped in. It is conceivable that Robinson might have been joining a team, working his way through the Program, looking to have a chair. After a lockdown following the fight, a deputy warden wanted to transfer Robinson and other attackers to the Bing. But as usual, the Bing was full. Robinson had to be transferred somewhere and punished. He was sent to One Main, House of Pain. “That’s when the hunter became the hunted,” says the deputy warden.

When Robinson arrived at One Main, Michael McKie was not on duty. He was home, using up his vacation time. He was in good spirits. He’d received a phone call from Rikers. There was news: McKie’s transfer had finally come through. Soon he would be reporting to work at the Manhattan Detention Center, the jail in downtown Manhattan known as the Tombs, a far more comfortable assignment.

“He would open your cell when you were sleeping,” an inmate claimed. “The team would then put you in a chicken-wing position and beat you.”

Meanwhile, at One Main, Robinson was on lockdown. Meals were slipped through a slot in his cell door. He had reason to be scared. He was childhood friends with Tyreece Abney, the last inmate to be beaten to death on Rikers, four years earlier.

On October 17, Robinson was scheduled to attend a hearing for his parole violation. But the parole hearing was rescheduled a third time. That night, he played cards and checkers with a friend in the dayroom and talked about girls. He’d recently learned his girlfriend was pregnant. He wanted to raise the child, even if it meant he would be a father in prison like his dad.

On October 18, after lunch had been served at One Main, three inmates entered Robinson’s cell. It’s unclear how they got in. Only one officer has access to the cell doors. This officer works inside the glassed-in security station on the housing area—the Bubble, it’s called. Every hour, inmates have “options” to either stay in the dayroom or their cells. The officer in the Bubble opens all cell doors for roughly five minutes so inmates can get their belongings. Inmates are not permitted to enter one another’s cells.

On this day, they entered. According to the police report, inmates “demanded [Robinson] pay a protection fee from his commissary fund, or they would beat him until he promised to comply.”

Robinson refused.

“One held his arms,” the report states. “The other two hit him in the chest until he fell unconscious.”

The officer on hall duty lingered near the entrance of the housing unit. The assault lasted ten to fifteen minutes, witnesses say, an eternity for a beatdown. An officer eventually entered the cell and administered CPR, to no avail. The medical examiner was called. When the NYPD forensics team arrived, they found the boy’s body lying in his cot, face up. His tan shirt was torn. His liver had been lacerated. One lung was punctured, blood surrounding it. He had been beaten so badly that a footprint could be seen on his chest. Meanwhile, detectives interviewed the detainees on One Main, many of whom were Bloods. If Robinson was a Crip, he had been housed in unfriendly territory. “The interviews,” the police report states, “reveal that two days prior [Robinson] had stated that he ‘would die before he would “get with it.” ’ ”

As the commissioner of the billion-plus Department of Correction, Marty Horn’s first task after Robinson’s death was to summon his senior staff to his office and watch the entire movie Lord of the Flies. Horn wanted them to see the final scene in the film, in which, after warring among themselves on a remote island, the surviving boys see a boat from the Royal Navy.


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