Behind the walls of Rikers Island

March 31, 2009 9:48:32 PM PDT
Some inmates call it Gladiator School. The evidence is overwhelming that a systemic structure of violence has existed for years at the adolescent jail on Rikers, and that correction officials knew about it.

Yes, a type of fight club among inmates who were sometimes even enlisted as enforcers by correction officers.

"It's saddening. It's disgusting. It's unnerving. It's just the worst thing ever," Charnel Robinson said.

The grieving mother of Rikers' inmate Christopher Robinson, reacting to these internal correction department documents. The documents show, long before the brutal beating death of the 18-year-old Robinson, intelligence reports warned of escalating assaults by inmates running violent extortion rings in the adolescent jail, RNDC.

"It's painful. I mean because if they can document this, they can fix it," Robinson said.

This intelligence details a pattern of extortion in a sophisticated team structure that dates back to mid-2007, more than a year and a half before Robinson was punched and stomped to death.

These are typical incident reports:
"Inmate was assaulted for being on the telephone"
"Inmate was assaulted by other inmates because they run the house?"
"When the television is on there will be no talking or you will be assaulted."

"That facility was basically, for lack of a better term, chaos," said a former correction official, who is intimately familiar with RNDC and the repeated and documented red flags. He did not want to be identified.

WALLACE: "And did high-ranking officials know about this pattern of violence?"
OFFICIAL: "They either knew or should have known because there were numerous reports written on this matter over the past few years."

Along with intelligence incident reports and memos, we obtained lists of serious injuries at RNDC for 2007 and 2008. The figures were proportionally way higher than any other jail. Over and over, the same types of injuries are noted: Nose fracture, jaw fracture, orbital fracture.

"What concerns me is the fact that none of these statistics showing how many young people were beaten has not been released to the public until you released it now," attorney Sandford Rubenstein said.

OFFICIAL: "It was basically a band-aid approach. Hold one or two inmates accountable. Put them in segregation for a short amount of time.... They didn't address the real problem."
WALLACE: "Which was?"
OFFICIAL: "Which was the widespread extortion that had taken place in every housing area."

An 18-year-old just released from RNDC told us that he was beaten eight times in six months. What's most alarming is that he claims many beating injuries were never reported by correction officers, who either ignored the assaults by inmates or condoned them.

INMATE: "They grab you so you can't move and then they hit you in your ribs... That's it, until you say you're going to respect what they say."
WALLACE: "Until you say you're going to respect what they say?"
INMATE: "Yeah."
WALLACE: "So when you were hit in the ribs, did you go to the doctor?"
WALLACE: "No? No one took you to the doctor. And when you had the two black eyes, did you got to the doctor?"
INMATE: "No. Because, um..."
WALLACE: Because the officers didn't like you? And does this happen all around -- this team structure. Does everybody know about it?"
INMATE: "Yeah, even the officers know."

In Christopher Robinsons' case, officers are accused of not only knowing about the assaults, but orchestrating them? Three have been charged along with 12 inmates.

"How can an inmate run a facility?" Robinson wondered.

Chris was Charnel Robinson's only son. He was put in Rikers because of a minor parole violation. He had been asked to work late at a job at Staples and missed a curfew. His mother says the teen refused to give in to the extortion ring.

"He feared for his life," she said, explaining that he was afraid of the other inmates. "They were supposed to be protected. It was supposed to be a controlled environment."

The 15 defendants in the Robinson case have pleaded not guilty. The Correction Commissioner declined an interview but the agency claims it has made major improvements in safety including adding staff, surveillance cameras and having intelligence units investigate every fight resulting in a serious injury.

Speaking of intelligence, we've learned that two days after Christopher Robinson's death, nearly 270 inmates were interviewed by the intelligence unit.

On Wednesday on Eyewitness News at 5:00 p.m. you will hear what inmates say about the program in their own words.