Behind the walls of Rikers Island

April 2, 2009 6:50:24 AM PDT
In an Eyewitness News exclusive, Rikers Island inmates describe a widespread pattern of extortion and violence in the adolescent jail.When 18-year-old Christopher Robinson was beaten to death on Rikers Island last fall, allegations emerged that officers in one housing unit had enlisted inmates to enforce discipline and control. But investigative reporter Sarah Wallace uncovered evidence that a fight club structure existed throughout the jail. It was not isolated.

Interviews with inmates finally took place after the death of Christopher Robinson. Had officials made the effort earlier, perhaps Robinson would still be alive.

CLICK HERE for Part I of Sarah Wallace's exclusive story.

"My right eye socket was broken," inmate Alcides Polanco said. "My jaw was hit, the right side of my ribs was all bruised."

Polanco, 19, claims the beating happened at RNDC - the adolescent jail on Rikers island. He says other inmates viciously assaulted him because he refused to follow the house rules.

"They take everything from you," he said. "All your belongings, your commissary, everything, if you're not 'with it.'"

Polanco believes he got off lucky. A month later, Polanco's friend, Christopher Robinson, was beaten to death in the same housing unit because he allegedly refused to comply with inmate extortion.

Polanco: "None of this should have happened."
Sarah Wallace: "And then he got killed a month later."
Polanco: "That's crazy, he got killed a month later. They said it could have been me."

Two days after Robinson's murder, the Correction Department's intelligence unit conducted interviews with nearly 270 adolescent inmates. Eyewitness News obtained summaries of those interviews. One 18-year-old, now out, was one of those questioned.

"The grab you so you cannot move, and then they hit you in your ribs," he said.

He and others paint a frightening "Lord of the Flies" portrait of widespread inmate extortion rings terrorizing others in a structured hierarchy. "Wit it" means with the extortion. If you are, you move up to what's called a "Dayroom 'N'-word," who distracts correction officers while the team carries out an assault. A promotion makes you a "Pop Off Dummy," and then a "Rockin' Rank" means you get privileges like using the telephone. At the team level, you are responsible for enforcing the rules - with force - against other inmates in honor of the Crib, who controls the housing area.

Sarah: "What were your rules?"
Inmate Jimmy Gerena: "Our rules was to ask them to do everything; to use the phone, to watch TV, to leave my cell."

Gerena, 18, says he refused to be "wit it" and suffered the consequences.

"They jumped me, and they bruised my arms, I had knots on my head," he said. "It's crazy, like the [corrections officers] don't do anything about it, they just let it happen."

In these interviews, inmates said the following:

  • "The 'Wit it' system exists in every housing area."
  • "All houses have a team structure, and staff knows about it."
  • "I was asked if I was "wit it." When I said no, I was hit in the face by the pop off dummy."

    The most notorious housing area is One Main.

    "My house was One Main, the house of pain," Polanco said.

    "Some young people described it as gladiator school," independent juvenile expert Mishi Faruquee said.

    Faruqee says she felt a sense of sickening deja vu when she learned of the interviews by the correction department. She and other experts had questioned 15 adolescent inmates back in late 2006 and then met with correction officials.

    Sarah: "So, at least a year and half before Christopher Robinson died, you flagged correction officials this was a systemic problem."
    Faruquee: "Yes."
    Sarah: "They drop the ball?"
    Faruquee: "Yes. I would say that."

    The city faces a growing number of lawsuits.

    "The cost to the city and the taxpayers for these serious injuries are staggering," attorney Andrew Stoll said.

    And although the correction department claims it has made a number of safety improvements in the wake of Robinson's death, Jimmy Gernea says he was beaten up after the teen's murder.

    "I don't see this changing at all," he said.

    "When people are dyin' and they don't do anything about it, they just don't care," Polanco said.

    The Commissioner of Corrections declined an interview, but the department says it has taken a number of actions to improve safety, including having the intelligence unit investigate every fight that results in a serious injury. They note Robinson's homicide was the first in four years.


    WEB PRODUCED BY: Bill King