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The Lords of Rikers

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“If we didn’t play that role, the strong arm of the state being a protector of the weak, then these housing units would devolve into Hobbesian worlds,” Horn says.

The irony, hard to be lost on anyone in the room, was that the devolution had already occurred.

Horn changed the name One Main to One Central, so it wouldn’t rhyme with House of Pain. Among other things, investigators from the Correction intelligence unit undertook a massive internal investigation. In total, 341 detainees at RNDC were questioned. Nearly everyone confirmed the Program’s existence.

“When I was in 2 Upper South, I was asked if I was ‘wit’ it.’ When I said no, I was hit in the face by a ‘pop-off dummy’ on the tier,” one inmate said.

“I was housed on Mod 1 and broke my hand because I was not ‘wit’ it,’ ” another said.

“My cell just opened up. I was not with it.”

“They tell another inmate they have to pay to live or even pay to sit at a table. Forget about a chair.”

“I do not have a chair. I am just a dayroom nigga.”

Correction investigators also fielded allegations about other RNDC officers’ complicity in the Program, so many that Horn claims he decided to plan his exit from Rikers.

“It horrified me,” Horn says, “to think this was all going on under my nose.”

Dora Schriro, Horn’s replacement at Correction, has struggled to control the increasing number of violent incidents on Rikers. Last month, at a City Council oversight hearing, Schriro claimed the reason for the uptick was that staff were better reporting incidents, but she failed to articulate a comprehensive plan to combat jail violence. In December, after clamoring from Sidney Schwartzbaum, the union leader for deputy wardens, Schriro initiated one reform by opening up a punitive-segregation unit within RNDC so inmates are punished there rather than herded together in units like One (Main) Central. So far, it’s been working to quell violence, sources inside RNDC say.

Meanwhile, prosecutors are preparing to go to trial in Robinson’s murder case. At the Bronx district attorney’s office, the Program and jail violence is familiar territory. In February 2008, months before Robinson arrived on Rikers, prosecutors charged RNDC officer Lloyd Nicholson with running the Program, assaulting inmates and falsifying reports. In one instance, an inmate claimed, Nicholson “put the ‘not with it niggaz’ in the dayroom and extremely beat the shit out of the person, until they say ‘wit’ it.’ ” One inmate was beaten so badly he had a punctured lung. Last year, Nicholson was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison.

The crux of criminal cases against Correction officers often rest on the reliability of the witnesses. The problem for prosecutors is that in nearly all cases they are inmates, who are notoriously untrustworthy. What makes inmates even more unreliable on the stand is that they are often forced to admit to making deals with prosecutors in exchange for their testimony. But piecing together the case against McKie and Nelson, inmates told investigators similar things.

“Most of the problems started with the C.O.,” one inmate said, according to an internal report. “They call him ‘Mac.’ He would open your cell while you were sleeping, and he would let the Team come into your cell. The team would then put you in a ‘chicken-wing’ position and beat you.”

“C.O. Mack ask inmates if they are wit’ it,” another inmate stated. “They do not hit you in the face unless you try and defend yourself and start swinging.” Another told investigators McKie tried to make him a “P.O.D., pop-off dummy.” When he refused, the inmate was “assaulted by unknown inmates.”

Prosecutors came to believe that all of this was consciously sanctioned and even directed by the guards. They ultimately charged McKie and Nelson under an enterprise-corruption statute, a state version of RICO. McKie and Nelson had essentially started their own prison gang, the indictment claims, and “recruited inmates to serve as subordinate managers, foot soldiers, and enforcers for the Program and directed them to maintain order within One Main.”

“I just want people to know, my husband didn’t do this,” says Sharmaine McKie, Michael McKie’s wife. We’re sitting in a diner in Brooklyn, and her eyes well up with tears. She reaches for a napkin. “Gangs is what he never wanted to get involved with. He’s not supposed to be the one in jail.”

After his arrest, a judge placed McKie’s bail at $400,000. He and his family couldn’t afford a bond. His old basketball coach Eisenberg put up his house, but there wasn’t enough equity in it to cover McKie’s bail. McKie was sent to an upstate prison, waiting for trial to begin, only to have it postponed several times. Almost two years passed before he was released.


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