Stun Shields, Stray Cats, Buck-Fifties, Boofing: The Top Brass’s Tour of America’s Largest Penal Colony
The Village Voice | December 12, 2000
HIDDEN BETWEEN THE BOROUGHS of New York City, a two-lane bridge rises from the northwest shore of Queens and extends more than a mile over the East River. Planes descending into LaGuardia Airport roar overhead constantly, while thousands of cars and buses commute each day across this steel-and-concrete roadway. Still, the bridge remains unknown to most New Yorkers. A mere 11 miles from Lady Liberty’s raised torch, it dumps passengers at the front door of the nation’s largest penal colony: Rikers Island, where 10 jails sprawl across an area half the size of Central Park.
The island is the heart of New York City’s jail system, home to 80 percent of its 14,600 or so inmates, with nine jails for men and one for women. Rikers’ daytime population—including prisoners, employees, and visitors—is enormous, nearly 20,000. All residents are temporary. Two-thirds of the inmates are detainees—legally innocent and waiting for their cases to crawl through the courts—while one-third have been sentenced and are waiting for an empty bed in an upstate prison or are serving a year or less here.
As New York City’s jail system has grown over the decades, Rikers Island has become something of a small town, with schools, medical clinics, ball fields, chapels, drug rehab programs, grocery stores, barbershops, a bakery, a power plant, a track, a tailor shop, a bus depot, and even a car wash.
Despite these signifiers of civilization, it is notoriously difficult to get onto Rikers Island without a gold badge, a visitor’s pass, or a pair of steel cuffs around one’s wrists. A reporter’s notebook or television camera, moreover, will likely get one only nervous glances and a polite refusal of permission to tour the jails. But here I was one summer morning, riding in a shiny black Mercury Grand Marquis belonging to Bernard Kerik, the commissioner of New York City’s Department of Correction.
Kerik would later become the city’s police commissioner, but on this day his promotion was still only a whispered possibility, a rumor that had been spreading through Rikers’ jails for nearly a year. In August, when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani picked Kerik to lead the nation’s largest police department, he pointed to the jail chief’s performance managing prisoners and guards; though the mayor didn’t mention it as a selling point, perhaps equally attractive to him was Kerik’s demonstrated ability to manage the city’s media.
On this day, as his driver steered his car toward the Rikers Island bridge, Kerik looked like a corporate executive on his way to the office, wearing a gold Rolex, his thinning hair slicked straight back, a silk tie knotted tightly, and shoes buffed to an obsessive shine. Kerik, 45, has six holes in his left earlobe—evidence of a prior stint with the NYPD, when he worked undercover as a ponytailed drug dealer. But today his spit-and-polish image seemed part of his effort to paint over the jails’ lingering reputation of overcrowding and violence.
Beginning in the late 1980s, riots injured hundreds of inmates and guards on Rikers Island. And after the Bloods, an African American gang, began recruiting members here in 1993, a vicious turf war erupted between the Bloods and the long dominant Latino gangs, the Latin Kings and Ñetas. Prisoners’ blood regularly decorated jail hallways, and officers dubbed the jail for teenage boys “Vietnam.” For some wardens, jail management meant shipping their most violent inmates to another facility under the pretext of reducing overcrowding. At the time, it seemed that the prisoners ran Rikers.
Kerik had surprised me by approving my request to roam around Rikers. Although he rarely granted journalists more than a few hours of access, he permitted me to spend a total of eight summer days on the island, presumably because he was eager to show how he had tamed Rikers, how he’d reinvented leadership on an island where crime—slashings and beatings and stabbings and riots—had once seemed beyond control.
Even before he became the leader of the NYPD, Kerik liked to draw comparisons between his job and the police commissioner’s. “People just assumed New York City was out of control and could never be changed,” Kerik said. “But look at the drop in crime. All of the things people said five years ago could never, ever, ever be done—they told me the same thing about Rikers Island.”
Kerik’s strategy for rehabilitating Rikers included improving its appearance as well as its crime statistics. “I’m an image guy,” he said. “Somebody in uniform . . . is supposed to earn respect. [If] you walk up and have mustard stains on your tie, your hat is on sideways, you have keys all around you—people think you’re a joke. . . . Some of these guys looked like they ironed their clothes with a hot rock.” Kerik paused. “If it’s my agency,” he added, “you look the way I want you to look.” Kerik’s campaign to win respect for Rikers, and for himself, involved not only well-pressed uniforms but also good press. At this, he excelled, landing positive stories in the New York Post, the Daily News, and The New York Times.
As the car nosed across the bridge, LaGuardia appeared on our right, so near that we drove over a pier of lights pointing pilots to Runway 13-31. And then once past the gates, here we were, heading down a quiet two-lane street lined by high-tech modular jails and aging brick jails and razor-tipped wire twisting around 12-foot fences.
Rikers prisoners refer to their home as “the Rock,” but from an archaeological point of view it’s more accurate to call this place a dump. Long before Rikers Island housed the accused, it served as the repository of what the city proper had no use for—broken boilers, old sofas, horse manure, garbage, tin cans, street sweepings, and earth from subway excavations. First arriving on the island’s south side in 1893, the refuse burned all day, attended by hordes of rats feasting on the city’s leftovers.
As the garbage grew, so did the island. Only 87 acres when New York City bought it from the Riker family in 1884 for $180,000, the island had, three decades and thousands of boatloads of trash later, swollen to nearly five times its original size, reaching some 415 acres. The island was transformed into a different sort of dumping ground in 1935, when the Rikers Island Penitentiary opened.
Sending prisoners to Rikers continued New York City’s Victorian strategy for dealing with undesirables. The islands rising from the East River in the middle of New York City have long been receptacles for the sick, poor, violent, and mentally ill. Over the last 200 years or so, they’ve housed insane asylums, a paupers’ cemetery, tuberculosis tents, a home for delinquent teenagers, and a hospital for such infectious diseases as smallpox and yellow fever.
Now our drive ended in front of Commissioner Kerik’s office, a pale yellow trailer, the seat of his power. His path here began in 1993, when he moonlighted for Giuliani’s mayoral campaign, managing the cops who worked as the candidate’s bodyguards. After Giuliani won, he appointed Kerik head of the Department of Correction’s investigations division. Kerik rose to the agency’s number two position in 1995, despite the fact that he lacks a college degree.
When Michael Jacobson, a budget expert with a doctorate in sociology, resigned in 1998, Kerik became the leader of the $860-million-a-year agency, and now, in his office, I was staring at the framed photographs adorning its fake wood-paneling—one, of Giuliani, was obligatory, but another, of Oliver North, I imagined might indicate quite a bit about the well-groomed commissioner. On his desk, a blueberry-scented candle burned, an attempt to override the stench left by the stray cats that resided beneath his trailer.
“We try to run the agency like corporate America,” explained Kerik. “In corporate America, if you can’t do the work, you have to go.” I didn’t doubt his sincerity. A little later I watched about 120 deputy commissioners, assistant commissioners, bureau chiefs, assistant chiefs, wardens, deputy wardens, assistant deputy wardens, captains, and officers stand as their boss marched into another trailer-turned-conference room at 8:03 a.m. On Rikers Island, management meetings always start the same way, with the sound of chairs scraping the floor in unison.
Kerik took his seat on the dais next to William J. Fraser, an enormous, ruddy-faced former guard who was then the agency’s highest-ranking uniformed member, the only person in the room with four gold stars pinned to each shoulder. Fraser’s official title was “Chief of Department,” though he could also have been described as Kerik’s enforcer. (When Kerik left for the NYPD, Fraser was named to succeed him, ensuring his boss’s legacy.) Now, from their perch at the front of the room, Kerik and Fraser surveyed their managers.
Some wore uniforms; others were civilians in business suits with graduate degrees and titles like “Assistant Commissioner, Assets Management.” Glancing around the room, it quickly became apparent that the racial composition of this agency darkens as one descends the pyramid of power. The four top officials on the dais were white, while the managers they oversee were a racially mixed group. The populations these managers supervise—the city’s prisoners and guards—include few whites. African Americans and Latinos make up 80 percent of the agency’s staff and 92 percent of its prisoners.
Kerik’s monthly meetings formed the centerpiece of his management strategy, a blueprint for leadership that he borrowed from the NYPD. Modeling his program on the NYPD’s Compstat, Kerik called his version the “Total Efficiency Accountability Management System,” or TEAMS. At these TEAMS meetings, Kerik quizzed wardens on topics ranging from the names of their jails’ Latin Kings gang leaders to the temperature of their potato salad. Wardens who didn’t have answers sometimes found themselves without jobs.
This morning it was Anthony Serra’s turn. Serra, who was then the boss of Rikers’ second-oldest jail, the North Infirmary Command, stood stiffly before a microphone in the middle of the packed room. Fraser began the questioning.
“You’ve had three slashings over the last two months,” the chief said to Serra. “Can you tell me about them?”
“The first incident occurred on May 29, up in housing area 6 South,” Serra dutifully reported. “We had an inmate, Hop, who went to retrieve a cup from in front of the television. Other inmates were watching the television. He blocked their view. They got mad at him. They didn’t like his response when they confronted him, so they attacked him.”
Serra continued his grim recitation, explaining that the second slashing occurred when one prisoner tired of another inmate shaking him down and urged friends to attack his extortionist. In the third incident, a Bloods gang member sliced the follower of a rival gang, the Five Percenters. To prevent further violence, Serra promised to erect more outdoor pens to separate his high-security inmates.
“Overall, you’re doing a good job,” Fraser said.
“Thank you, sir.”
A few years ago, these interrogations didn’t always go so smoothly. “I recall times in this agency when I asked [wardens], ‘How many inmates do you have in your facility?’ “ Kerik said later. “And they didn’t know. They’d have to get on the phone and call a captain.” Such lapses infuriated the commissioner. “I’m not asking about brain surgery,” he noted. “I’m asking about your job. You’re supposed to know.” One warden stumbled so badly that he lost his job before the meeting ended. In this jailhouse version of corporate America, fear is the ultimate management tool, a way for guards to control the prisoners, and for the agency’s top officials to control their wardens.
The door to these meetings remained closed to outsiders back when wardens were fumbling basic questions. But today, violence on the island is at an all-time low, the door has swung open, and the parade of visitors is nonstop. Giuliani has sat on the dais next to Kerik. Prison officials from Hawaii, Singapore, and South Africa have observed these meetings. Vladimir Yalunin, who runs Russia’s prison system, has visited. And on this morning, a few officials from the New Jersey state prison system filled chairs near the front. Rikers’ sheer magnitude and notoriety make it a popular tourist attraction for out-of-town prison officials.
With so many visitors passing through, these question-and-answer sessions seemed to be as much about impressing outsiders as about monitoring wardens. By now, Kerik’s managers had learned what questions to expect and usually spat back well-rehearsed responses.
The morning’s only nerve-racking moment came shortly after John Basilone, then the warden of the Anna M. Kross Center, stepped behind the podium. With 2305 men in his jail, Basilone supervised a population larger than Maine’s entire state prison system. Fraser glanced down at his copy of the wardens’ report cards, stapled into a 60-page packet known as the “Primary Indicator Report.” There aren’t any A’s or B’s in these report cards, but there are plenty of monthly numbers designed to measure the wardens’ performance, from how many of their prisoners escaped or hanged themselves to how many visited a hospital or got caught with a homemade shank.
Fraser grilled Basilone about his slashing statistics, then homed in on the number of times prisoners visited the jail’s commissary, the mini-grocery store where popular purchases include Keebler cookies and Newport cigarettes.
“You had 5600 people from January to May go to commissary, and [in June] that figure doubled to 11,792,” Fraser said to the warden. “Is that an accurate number? If so, tell me we’re not having a riot or something.”
“I believe the numbers have—” Basilone stopped. Everyone in the room waited. Finally, Basilone responded. “No, Chief.”
“Listen, forget the answer,” said Fraser, his voice growing louder and his cheeks redder. “This is something for everyone. When you see spikes [in your numbers] in certain areas, go see what’s wrong. A spike in commissary is very critical because it can indicate a number of things, from an inmate strike to an inmate food boycott to a potential disturbance brewing. That’s when people stock up on commissary, because they know they ain’t going to be leaving their cells to eat.”
“We had looked into this,” the warden insisted. “We didn’t have anyone hoarding.”
Fraser wasn’t satisfied. “If 11,000 is accurate, then the 5600 number is not a good answer, because that means you didn’t have sufficient stock [in the commissary],” the chief said. “You’re lucky you didn’t have more stabbings and slashings because, if I’m an inmate and I can’t get anything, then I’m going to be a little upset. This is serious stuff, guys. Take it serious!”
Kerik announced a 15-minute break, and the crowd drifted toward the table in the back with trays of prisoner-made pound cake from Rikers’ bakery. Two video monitors, which had shown charts and graphs during the wardens’ interrogations, now flashed a revealing slogan: Great players win games. Great teams win championships.
Kerik invited his visitors into a back room. “There are five issues that inmates can really rally around to the point of a riot,” he said. “One is commissary, one is visits, one is telephone, one is food, and one is mail.” He explained that any disruption in these services—if the flow of letters stops or the phone lines go dead—could spark a rebellion. Analyzing statistics to figure out exactly how much hardship his prisoners would endure, Kerik seemed to have transformed the practice of punishment into an elaborate mathematical equation.
Despite the faltering of his last warden, the commissioner assured the visitors that his employees were excelling. Kerik’s message was simple and seductive: He had regained control of Rikers with his version of corporate accountability—charts, statistics, intimidation. Indeed, Kerik has shrunk the number of stabbings and slash-ings by 93 percent in the last five years—an impressive accomplishment heralded by even his harshest critics.
But in a penal colony, even when there’s good news, there’s plenty of bad news, too. Over the three months I visited, two officers and two captains were arrested for beating an inmate and trying to cover up the assault. Three prisoners escaped. A guard committed suicide by flinging himself in front of a subway. At the same time, the Department of Correction was still reeling from a spate of news stories exposing sloppy medical practices, including charges that inmates had died because the city’s handpicked health care provider was trying to cut costs by sending fewer patients to the hospital.
Like any statistics, Kerik’s numbers told only part of the story of Rikers Island. The numbers that the Department of Correction doesn’t collect may be just as revealing. Questions never asked at these management meetings include “How many of your prisoners are repeat visitors to the city’s jails?” and “How many of the prisoners you released left with a referral to a drug rehab program?” In these low-crime times, Kerik’s focus remained fixed on perfecting the art of jail management, not on improving services for the drug addicts and mentally ill people who stream back and forth over the Rikers Island bridge.
As I learned more about Rikers Island, in fact, the place began to resemble not so much an efficiently managed corporation as a city-run superghetto kept out of the public eye. Statistics don’t tell the whole story, but they do suggest that just beneath New York’s media-hyped boom lies a world of poverty, suffering, and chaos: About 30 percent of prisoners report they were homeless at some point within three months before they were locked up. Twenty-five percent receive some mental health services. Twenty percent of the women and 7 percent of the men are HIV-positive. And 90 percent are high school dropouts.
Statistics show that more than 80 percent of people arrested in Manhattan test positive for illegal drug use. Each year, the city’s jails get about 130,000 admissions. Nobody knows exactly how many different people this number represents, but half have made at least one prior trip to a city jail within the last fiscal year. So many prisoners are Rikers regulars that guards welcome them by name when they arrive, and inmates congratulate the officers when they get promoted.
Three-quarters of the detainees in New York City’s jails are locked up solely because they cannot afford bail. Perhaps the most revealing indicator of these prisoners’ poverty is the fact that 42 percent have bails of $1000 or less. For many thousands of them, a few extra hundred dollars is enough to determine if they live at home as their case goes through the courts—a process that can last anywhere from two days to occasionally more than two years—or wait, whether innocent or guilty, in a concrete cage.
Inside Tier 3C
IN THE LOBBY OF THE NORTH INFIRMARY COMMAND, a five-story jail across the street from the commissioner’s trailer, I dropped my driver’s license in a metal drawer. The guard behind the glass pushed back a laminated pass. “Don’t lose that thing,” said Angelo Manzi, then the jail’s deputy warden, as I clipped it to my shirt. “Or we’ll have to find a place for you.” He was joking, but not entirely. On Rikers, a misplaced visitor’s pass triggers a facility-wide search; in a prisoner’s hands, it could become a get-out-of-jail-free card.
The North Infirmary Command has only 446 beds, fewer than any other Rikers jails, but it is a magnet for journalists because it holds the “front-page folks,” as Thomas Antenen, the Department of Correction’s spokesman at the time, liked to call them. All stripes of celebrities have slept there, from David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz and Robert “Preppy Killer” Chambers to Reverend Al Sharpton and rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard of Wu-Tang Clan. Most inmates whose mug shots show up in the tabloids do their time at this jail, where they are kept apart from the rest of the prisoner population so guards can watch them closely.
Today, there were no boldfaced celebrities on Rikers. Ol’ Dirty Bastard had been arrested two days earlier, but this time he’d paid his bail quickly. The best-known resident at the moment was Kenneth Kimes, who, with his mother, was convicted of murdering a Manhattan millionaire. (Later, after being shipped to an upstate prison, Kimes attracted national attention when he held a reporter hostage for more than four hours with a Paper Mate pen.)
For reporters, photographers, television producers, and cameramen who wanted to visit Rikers, Antenen was the gatekeeper. Until recently, when he followed Kerik to the NYPD, Antenen’s job had been to spin for the city’s jail system as its “Deputy Commissioner, Public Information.” When a reporter heard that a prisoner had hanged himself or stabbed a guard or tried to swim to LaGuardia, Antenen got the call. His duties included sifting through media inquiries from as far away as Japan and Italy, memorizing the names of rap stars who are often arrested, and turning down all journalists who asked to spend a night in a Rikers cell.
I had been to the North Infirmary Command as a reporter twice in the last few years, and like almost every interview conducted on the island, mine were set up ahead of time, according to the agency’s rules. I faxed a letter to Antenen. The prisoner signed a release. And on the appointed day, a guard escorted the inmate into a tiny room close to the jail’s entrance, where I got one hour, maybe two, to ask questions. No strolling around the jail, no peeking inside the inmate’s cell, no chatting with other prisoners. As Antenen liked to say, “We don’t just let reporters go fishing among our inmate population.”
But for this story, Kerik and Antenen made an exception. They had agreed to let me tour Rikers’ jails as long as I had an escort. Or four. This morning, my presence seemed a matter of discomfort, since the jail’s three highest-ranking officials, plus Antenen, had decided to act as my personal tour guides. I recognized one of them, Anthony Serra, from the recent meeting of Kerik’s managers. Serra became a guard when he was 23, after toiling for three years as a dividends clerk on Wall Street. At 39, his buzz cut and stocky frame made him look less like a corporate climber than a marine, the job he held after high school.
We began our tour outside Tier 2C, where inmates pass the hours in their six-by-eight-foot cells or an attached cage, which functions as a mini-recreation room. The walls echoed with the voices of talk-show hosts and cartoon characters. Serra stopped next to the first cage, home of his youngest prisoner.
“This inmate was involved in a murder in our adolescent facility,” Serra said, gesturing at a sullen 17-year-old named John Alexander, who later pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter. “But because he’s an adolescent, he gets this cubicle to himself. We run services just for him. We take him to recreation. We take him to the library. When he goes to school, he wears mitts, but not during school.” On Rikers Island, “mitts” are black, foot-long tubes, closed at one end, which are locked onto the hands of especially violent inmates.
Alexander did not look up from his television as Serra described his predicament. After the teenager strangled fellow inmate Lance Gaston in January 1999, officials moved him to this cell. “Are you getting your GED?” Serra asked through the steel bars. The inmate nodded. “Are you going to pass?” He nodded again. “Have you taken any practice tests?” The teenager shook his head no. Serra encouraged him to study, then strode down the narrow cell block.
The forced falseness of the exchange reminded me, if I needed reminding, that the truth about daily life inside Rikers does not come out easily. Casual conversations, whether with inmates or guards, are almost impossible; careless remarks to a reporter can injure a career or plunge a prisoner into disfavor. The evidence is everywhere—including in the clenched jaw and darting eyes of a captain at the women’s jail when I tried to chat with him about his job. “We can’t talk to reporters,” he said. “It’s in our rule book.” The pleading stares of prisoners as they passed me in the hall suggested they would scream out all their fears and frustrations if only a row of officers armed with pepper spray were not watching. In this sense, all prison reporting is a lie, and the best one may hope for is a set of half-truths or an unscripted moment that reveals what is supposed to remain hidden.
Next was Reginald Harris, who reclined in a plastic chair and stared at the window across the corridor from his cell. According to a printout Serra carried on his clipboard, Harris escaped from a state facility in 1982 and was caught with “escape-related” material while on Rikers in 1990. Over the years, he’d made three trips to state prison for weapons possession. I asked Harris what he did all day. He slipped off a pair of headphones and fixed his gaze on the crew of visitors outside his cage.
“I figure out ways to get out of jail,” he said.
Serra chuckled, but only for a moment.
“I’ve been coming to Rikers Island since 1968,” said Harris, 49, dragging on a Newport. “I don’t respect the law. I feel it’s my right to be free. I’ve escaped three times—two times it was documented and once before they put in the computer system. I escaped in 1973, 1982, and I tried in 1990.” What went wrong in 1990? “I had a map,” said Harris, sounding rueful. “But I told the wrong person. I thought he wanted to be free.”
Serra steered the group up a flight of stairs. On Rikers, most prisoners who flout the rules—who slash an enemy or punch a guard—get sent to one of five special punitive units nicknamed the “Bing.” Inmates who are too notorious and dangerous for the Bing come to Tier 3C of the North Infirmary Command—where we were now. As we approached the entrance, Serra shouted, “On the gate!”
Glancing at his inmate roster, Serra pointed to Damon Barow’s name. “He cut a C.O. [correction officer] while he was in the Bing , so he’s over here,” Serra explained. Next was David Pannell. “He’s a Five Percenter and he’s at war with the Bloods,” he continued. “The Bloods would love to do him any time they can.” Steel mesh covers the cages on Tier 3C to prevent prisoners from slicing passersby. This precaution was especially helpful at the moment, since Pannell lived at the corridor’s far end, while the prisoner in the first cell was Leonard “Deadeye” McKenzie, the leader of the Bloods.
Tier 3C’s residents began hollering before we even stepped inside their cell block. “Every time I come in here, they annoy me,” said Serra, his smile now gone. “Someone had a gold bracelet and he refused to give it up. He swallowed the chain. And he stuffed a ring in his butt. I brought in the search team, and they refused to lock in to their cells , so I had to gas them.”
Officers pepper-sprayed the inmates into submission, but the memory of the confrontation still riled Serra. “Did you see The Silence of the Lambs?” he asked, referring to the way the Anthony Hopkins character, Hannibal Lecter, is cuffed, chained, and muzzled. “That’s how I would like to do it. I’d love to put ‘em on handcarts and just transport them.”
Gossip columnists at the New York Post may not know Deadeye’s name, but on Rikers Island he is an A-list celebrity. Deadeye, whose moniker refers to his one cloudy eye, cofounded the Bloods’ New York City chapter on Rikers in 1993. Soon after, he boosted his notoriety by slamming an officer in the head with a 50-pound dumbbell. Now 32, Deadeye has been cycling through New York’s jails since age 10, on charges ranging from selling cocaine to robbery to assault. His “pedigree card”—where officers scribble an inmate’s security classification—states: “Must be accompanied by staff for every move. Highly assaultive.”
“Hey, warden, why should I be subjected to no-contact visits with my family?” Deadeye shouted as we walked by his cell.
“It’s for your own protection and the protection of the inmate population,” Serra told him. “He’s a little angry with me because I took away his contact visits,” the warden whispered to me. “Now he visits through glass because I don’t want anyone slashing him, and I don’t want him slashing anyone.”
With hundreds of followers, Deadeye is among Rikers’ most powerful residents, part of the impetus behind Kerik’s Gang Intelligence Unit. “When he arrived here,” Serra said, “the very next day, I had a slashing in my yard between the Bloods and Five Percenters for no other reason than the Bloods were showing off for the boss.” Since then, Deadeye has not given Serra too many headaches. “I let him know he may be the leader of the Bloods, but I’m the leader of the jail and I control him,” Serra explained. “I tell him it could be peaceful, or we could go to war every day.”
Serra’s tour of Tier 3C ended in the hallway outside the cell block, next to a padlocked cabinet mounted on the wall. Inside, two rows of orange Bic razors hung behind a glass door. Prisoners are allowed a razor for a 15-minute shave each day. But if they refuse to return their Bic, the warden calls in his search team—guards in helmets and body armor, armed with batons and shields. As Serra finished, I counted the razors and jotted in my notepad: New 36, Used 13.
I realized a deputy warden had been monitoring what I wrote when he blurted out: “Did you count 13?” Suddenly, the calm professionalism of the jailers gave way to quiet panic. A missing razor meant a search team and pepper spray. Everyone stared at my notes, then at the cabinet. The officials quickly counted the used blades. One, two, three, four...14. I’d undercounted by one. The men relaxed.
Did You See Me on TV?
AS PARADOXICAL AS IT SOUNDS, it’s possible to be arrested on Rikers Island. This is one of the functions of the Gang Intelligence Unit, a squad of 111 guards who track gang members and each month arrest 80 to 100 prisoners on charges ranging from torching a mattress to smuggling in cocaine to stabbing a correction officer.
Today, two guards inside the George Motchan Detention Center were preparing to arrest a young man for having a small razor blade. Gregory Borges bent forward, lifted one leg of his jeans, and slid a 9mm gun into his ankle holster. A few feet away, his partner, Joseph Sanabria, pulled the Velcro straps of his stab-proof vest tight around his torso.
Emmanuel Bailey, then the assistant deputy warden in charge of this unit, strolled over. “You got your mitts?” he asked his officers. “You got everything you need?” The mitts arrived on Rikers a couple years ago, a new weapon in Kerik’s campaign to seize control. Invented by a Nevada jail guard, the mitts are supposed to deter inmates from wielding razor blades or picking their handcuff locks. Sanabria grabbed a pair off a table and headed for the door.
Before joining his officers to oversee today’s arrest, Bailey showed me around his headquarters. There are 2100 alleged gang members in the city’s jails, he explained, and his unit’s main gangbusting tool is an elaborate computer-tracking system. Click a few times on a mouse in this room, and a gang member’s life story pops up on the screen—his height, weight, home address, mother’s name, most recent visitors, enemies, a photo of his tattoos.
The Bloods, Latin Kings, Ñetas, and Five Percenters are Rikers’ largest gangs, but there are more than 50 others with names reflecting New York City’s diversity, including the Chicano Nation, the Nigerian Express, the Trinitarians, the Jamaican Posse, and Dominican Power. As Bailey emphasized how well-trained and professional his unit was, a customized screen saver floated across one of his computer screens: Gang Intelligence/Arrest Unit AKA Blood Hunter.
The Gang Intelligence Unit is a favorite stop on any tour of the new-and-improved Rikers Island. For decades, a feeling of inferiority had hovered over Rikers Island, a sense that jail guards operated in the shadow of the NYPD. When the NYPD’s crime-fighting feats became front-page news across the country a few years ago, Rikers’ guards felt forgotten, neglected, snubbed.
Now the agency’s leaders like to talk about how police officers from Brooklyn to Alaska are calling them for help, for tips on tracking down gang members or deciphering their codes. In his office, Bailey pointed to a framed picture of himself from the May 1999 issue of POLICE, which hung on a wall next to his desk. “That’s a real police magazine,” he said, a grin spreading across his face. “And we made the cover.” The assistant deputy warden likes to tell visitors about his appearance in an A&E documentary, and he beams when inmates mention they saw him on television.
A few minutes later, Bailey pulled out his most compelling prop, a gory mosaic of Polaroids showing prisoners minutes after they have been sliced. Taped to the center of his “victims board” were the weapons of choice among Rikers residents: paper-thin razor blades. Girlfriends slide blades to their inmate boyfriends while kissing in the visiting room, and friends mail them into the jails hidden inside the perfume-ad inserts of glossy magazines.
(Sometimes razors arrive through the mail, addressed to unsuspecting prisoners. This is a favorite tactic of jealous men trying to move in on women after their boyfriends get sent to jail. Sending blades to a jailed boyfriend is an attempt to get rid of him—to get him in trouble so he spends extra time on Rikers or, better yet, gets shipped off to a faraway prison.)
Like prisoners everywhere, Rikers inmates use their rectums as a sort of suitcase for weapons, concealing one or two razor blades—or sometimes even 20 or 30—by “slamming” or “boofing” them. They wrap the blades in matchbook covers, tie pieces of thread or string around the cardboard, and then shove the weapons up their rectums. Before Rikers officials banned Nike Airs, inmates hid blades in the sneakers’ hollow chambers. And prisoners used Vaseline for slamming until officials made that item contraband too.
The dozens of photos tacked to Bailey’s bulletin board showed prisoners on their backs, blood pooling around their heads and oozing across white hospital sheets. The men wear the evidence of a recent slashing on their cheeks, necks, chins, foreheads. These are the slicer’s favorite targets; a scar stretching across the face will always be visible, forever marking the victim and advertising the attacker’s ferocity.
When the Bloods began warring with Rikers’ Latino gangs several years ago, many more prisoners walked around with scarred cheeks. Slashings became the quickest way for the Bloods to announce their arrival on the island; to join the gang, Rikers inmates had to “blood in,” or slash someone across the face. Such assaults became so routine that Bloods members referred to the act of cutting their fellow inmates as “putting in work.”
Certain types of slashings were so common that they too acquired names. There is the “buck-fifty,” a cut that needs 150 stitches. An ear-to-mouth slicing has the unfortunate name “smiley.” Cuts on the back, chest, or elsewhere on the body lack nicknames, since those targets are less desirable. “You get no points for the back of the head,” Bailey said. “Any facial cut is a bonus area because you can never cover your face.”
Bailey explained that the new weapon of choice is a scalpel, which is thinner than a razor blade and so less likely to set off a metal detector when stashed inside the rectum. Some assailants prefer the scalpel because it takes a second or two longer to feel its sting, just enough time to steal away unnoticed.
Now Bailey and I joined officers Sanabria and Borges outside, and we climbed into a Ford Taurus. We turned onto Hazen Street, the main road on Rikers, which curls around past most of the island’s jails, and one minute later arrived at the Anna M. Kross Center, one of Rikers’ largest facilities, which spreads over 40 acres. Long modular units added to the back of the jail make it look from above like a spider with its legs stretched out.
Sanabria stopped at the front entrance and ran in to drop off the officers’ guns, which are banned inside jails lest an inmate grab one. As we rode around to the back of the jail, the investigators grew quiet, and in the backseat Borges nervously fingered the pair’s walkie-talkies. “You can’t fall asleep and start getting routine,” he explained. “You have to remember anyone can be violent at any time.”
Bailey and his two officers strode through the jail’s intake area, past Pen #2, where nearly 40 men were crammed together in a space the size of a typical Manhattan living room, though its only furnishings were wooden benches and a toilet with no door. I estimated the temperature to be 90 degrees. The only fan blew from behind the officers’ desk. The stench of sweat hung heavy in the air, as did an overwhelming sense of frustration and defeat.
Some of the inmates had just been arrested; others had been up since 4:30 a.m. and were returning from a day at court. Several jockeyed for a spot near the front of the pen, where they would be visible to the officers and perhaps less likely to be attacked. Next door, Pen #3 was incongruously empty, save for the leavings of its most recent inhabitants: blankets, milk containers, a smattering of orange peels, one plastic slipper, half a roll of toilet paper, and one odorous puddle.
The inmates peered through their bars as Bailey strolled by. His uniform—a navy jacket with four gold buttons and a gold oak leaf pinned on each shoulder—announced his authority; the presence of an assistant deputy warden signaled that something out of the ordinary was about to happen.
The prisoners craned their necks to watch as a guard walked down the corridor toward the intake area, delivering German Gonzalez, a tall, slender inmate with a teardrop tattooed beneath his left eye. Gonzalez had been on Rikers for a couple weeks, ever since cops picked him up for selling heroin. He knew the island well. Like many addicts, he was a frequent visitor; over the past few years, he had made seven trips and spent a total of 398 nights in jail.
Counselors on Rikers Island used to help combat this cycling by easing the transition to post-jail life. They helped inmates navigate the maze of city agencies—sign up for food stamps, find a bed in a drug treatment program, track down a birth certificate to apply for Social Security, even re-enroll in high school. But over the last five years, the number of counselors in the city’s jails has plunged from 105 to 11, and Rikers’ revolving door continues to spin nonstop.
As Gonzalez entered the system this time, a guard accused him of having one razor blade in his pocket and another hidden in the sole of his sneaker. Possession of a razor blade is legal on the streets of New York City, of course, but carrying one onto Rikers Island can be a felony. Gonzalez looked more confused than menacing as Bailey and his two officers led the prisoner behind a plastic curtain. On Rikers, detainees wear their everyday clothes unless they get rearrested, and so the officers ordered Gonzalez to strip off his jersey and khaki shorts and climb into a slate-gray jumpsuit.
Gesturing to Gonzalez’s cuffed wrists, the assistant deputy warden said, “I’m sorry about this.”
“It’s all right,” said Gonzalez with a shrug. “Shit happens.” He paused, then added, “Am I going to court?”
A guard told Gonzalez in Spanish that they were taking him to the 41st police precinct in the Bronx. Borges stuffed Gonzalez’s clothes into a cotton sack, while Sanabria squatted to fasten a pair of clamps around the inmate’s ankles. Bailey asked Gonzalez if he’d heard about the agency’s new policy of arresting prisoners for crimes committed on Rikers Island.
“I’ve never been arrested, but I heard about it,” Gonzalez said.
“Did you see me on TV?” Bailey asked.
The prisoner looked puzzled, but he played along. “No,” he said. “I didn’t see you.”
Forty pairs of eyes followed Gonzalez as the officers steered him past the holding pens toward the exit. The arrest seemed intended as much to send a message to the prisoners in Pen #2 as it was to punish Gonzalez. (Four months later, this case against Gonzalez would be dismissed.) The commissioner had told me that because the number of violent incidents had plummeted, Rikers inmates no longer needed weapons for self-defense, but when I asked the prisoner why he’d wanted a razor, he rolled his eyes and stared at me like I was crazy. “Because I got to protect myself,” he said.
Visit to Rosie’s
BY NOW, SUMMER CLASSES at the Rosewood High School had ended. The girls in the Rose M. Singer Center, or “Rosie’s,” where Rikers houses its female inmates, had to entertain themselves. So on this humid morning, four girls crowded around a table playing spades and swapping stories in a room with bare walls, one fan, and a long window looking onto a guards’ station. The ringleader in cell block “6 Upper” was Mona Lisa, a saucy 17-year-old from Harlem.
She glanced at the cards in her hand and tossed a two of diamonds on the table. A cigarette swung from her lips as the teenager rattled off the reasons why life stinks inside the Bing, the jail’s cell block for especially unruly prisoners. “In the Bing, you can’t have an ashtray,” Mona Lisa said. “You can’t have cigarettes. You can’t have oatmeal. The other thing about the Bing is you only get one shower a day.”
Scattered around the room were nine other teenagers, who gossiped and braided each other’s hair as a television blared The Jenny Jones Show. The audience in front of the television included the captain who had been assigned to escort me around the jail—a sign, I figured, that he wasn’t too worried about what the girls might tell a reporter. Kerik’s tour of Rikers’ reforms does not include a stop inside cell block 6 Upper at Rosie’s. Indeed, the women’s jail, which has never had a problem with stabbings and slashings, does not fit neatly into Kerik’s tale of dropping crime rates.
Today, the population at Rosie’s includes 1600 adult women, 30 16- to 18-year-olds, and nine babies. After touring the men’s jails on Rikers, strolling through Rosie’s is a surprise: The entrance is painted pink, the fear of violence doesn’t hang in the air, and most of the guards are female. Prisoners sometimes stroll arm-in-arm through the halls, and if they encounter a toilet with no seat, they’ll stick down sanitary pads to create a cushion.
Pregnant inmates live together in a dorm called “Building 7,” passing the days in a haze of cigarette smoke. And in the jail nursery, mothers push strollers around a patch of asphalt, chatting about the three new sets of twins or about which of them were shackled after they gave birth. In every part of Rosie’s, the women debate a pet theory, that they get worse services than the men—that their food is less tasty, that they are told to use toilet paper instead of sanitary napkins when supplies run low—because they are less violent.
In cell block 6 Upper, the inmates’ favorite topic of discussion was the Bing, and the self-appointed authority was Mona Lisa. Short braids frame Mona Lisa’s baby face, which might let her pass for 14 until she sashays around the cell block, drawing attention to her ample hips. Though this was Mona Lisa’s first trip to Rikers, she already sounded like an old-timer, wearing her Bing time as a badge of honor. Mona Lisa said she’d arrived on Rikers three months earlier and had already spent 40 days in the jail’s Bing, where inmates are locked in a room for 23 hours a day.
“You get a phone call once a week,” she said. “You can’t have no food in the Bing. Nothin’ that we get up here. We don’t go to commissary for soap, y’know, things you want. They call it toilet-bowl shopping,” Mona Lisa said, referring to the inmate practice of storing soda or perishable foods in a cell toilet. “In the Bing, we don’t even go toilet-bowl shopping!”
What did Mona Lisa do to earn a trip to the Bing? “A girl threw pee on my bed because I didn’t give her a cigarette, and I threw pee in her face,” Mona Lisa said with a smirk. “She slapped me. A C.O. broke it up. Then I beat her up in the bathroom.”
Male prisoners get sent to the Bing for offenses like attacking a guard or slamming razor blades, but female inmates receive the same punishment for less serious transgressions. According to the warden of Rosie’s, female prisoners tend to go to the Bing for “fighting with each other, disrespecting staff, not following orders, lingering in the hallways...and stealing from each other.” One of the few times an officer found a razor blade in this jail, the inmate was using it to sculpt her eyebrows.
Jennifer, 17, sat nearby, half listening to Jenny Jones and half watching her fellow inmates’ card game. Jennifer’s belly pushed against her T-shirt, evidence that she is among the 20 percent of Rosie’s prisoners who are pregnant. Jennifer said she had been on Rikers for three months after being picked up in a drug sweep. Today, she looked sulky, but it was not morning sickness or the lack of air-conditioning that was troubling her.
“A girl in here just got jumped and had a miscarriage,” she said. Two weeks had passed and Jennifer was still upset about how her friend’s alleged attacker was treated. “She didn’t go to the Bing or nothing,” Jennifer said. “That’s not right. She should be tried for attempted murder or murder.”
“Yep.” Evidently, everyone had already heard about the incident, and everyone agreed with Jennifer.
Mona Lisa steered the conversation to another girl they all knew. “You know Cheryl, right?” she asked. (This inmate’s name has been changed.) “She has to stay in the Bing until 2003. She was fighting C.O.’s, captains. She walks around with the black mitts on her hands. She even has a lawsuit because they beat her. She’s 18.” A sense of awe crept into Mona Lisa’s voice as she recounted Cheryl’s troubles. “Everybody in here knows her,” Mona Lisa said. “She’s famous in here.”
“She gets sprayed with mace and she just keeps on going,” another girl added.
The card game ended, and Mona Lisa scribbled down the scores. “This is my case right here,” she said, pointing to the top sheet of a stapled stack. Mona Lisa explained that an adult inmate in the law library had helped her photocopy these descriptions of the penal codes for the charges she faces. The crime listed on the first page: 120.10 Assault in the First Degree. “I was reading it because when we get in the courtroom, I don’t be understanding what they’re saying,” Mona Lisa said. Her fellow players—Christine, Ruby, and Desiree—all nodded in agreement, although no one else wanted to discuss why she was on Rikers Island.
There did not seem to be much to do other than keep playing cards, so the girls dealt a new hand. To pass the hours, they also bickered and fought. They traded tips on how to make an ashtray out of a soap bar and how to make an envelope using paper and toothpaste. They complained about everything—about the cops who arrested them, their prosecutors, the jailhouse soap that made their skin crack. And they talked about how they were never, ever going to come back here.
Mona Lisa’s strategy for combating boredom seemed to involve talking compulsively. “I never would have gone to the Bing,” she continued. “But, you know, I’ve been here a long time, and you can go and tell a C.O. that this person is doing this and they never say nothing. And then when you take matters into your own hands, you go to the Bing. I don’t like that.”
“We’re all different ages, but some of us are more mature than others,” explained Desiree, perhaps as a way to counter Mona Lisa’s Bing tales. “Some of us know how to get along better than others do.” Desiree said she’d been on the island for only three days, but already she had compiled a lengthy list of grievances. “The food is really disgusting,” said Desiree. “That’s what we got to talk about. And the way the C.O.’s talk to us—that’s another thing that’s really disgusting. They curse at us, especially in new admissions. They be treatin’ you like shit, saying ‘Shut the fuck up.”’
The captain in the corner remained out of earshot, and Desiree seemed unbothered by his presence. Unlike adult prisoners I had met, these girls had little fear about saying what was on their minds.
“And people that get dope sick—” Desiree continued. “You shouldn’t do dope, but the C.O.’s act like it’s the addicts’ fault. If they see somebody having a seizure, they leave them there.”
“Somebody could die in here because they take their time,” said Mona Lisa.
“You know what I think is so nasty?” said Ruby, glancing up from her cards. Wearing a denim miniskirt and green metallic nail polish, Ruby looked as if she could have been heading out to a party. “Say she just came into new admissions,” said Ruby, gesturing to the girl next to her, “and I’ve been here already. The medical staff haven’t checked her, but they’ve checked me. And they chain me to her when we go to court. That’s nasty because you don’t know what she’s got. She could be somebody off the streets. She could have TB or something.”
“We’re not supposed to get handcuffed to anyone because we’re adolescents,” said Mona Lisa. “They’re supposed to put you by yourself in a cage,” another teenager added.
A pudgy girl sitting behind Desiree leaned forward to join the conversation. “I don’t like the cages,” she said, “because I feel like I’m an animal in the Bronx Zoo.”
At 11:15 a.m., Desiree, Mona Lisa, Ruby, and Christine pushed back their chairs and stacked their cards on the table. On the back of each playing card was a helpful message: Play it safe. AIDS can happen to anyone. The girls drifted out of the dayroom and lined up against a wall, ready to be marched to the mess hall. By now, they had stopped gossiping and joking and smiling. Already, they’d mastered this monotonous drill; the excitement of learning to navigate this new world had quickly ebbed.
A few hours later, I visited the jail’s Bing for adolescents. An officer let me into an empty eight-by-10-foot cell, and I tried to imagine how Mona Lisa’s youthful enthusiasm had fit into such a small space. Then I spied her handiwork covering one cinder-block wall:
Shay & Mona Lisa 4Ever One
Bloody Face & Mona Lisa
Blood Shai & Mo-Love 9Stop 1Love 4Ever In Life.
It could have been a high school bathroom stall, I thought—until I noticed that some young prisoner had sketched a calendar by the door and drawn a slash through each day of captivity.
Beauty Tips for Prisoners
PETRA CIRINO LAID HER SCISSORS on the counter and watched her customer wipe at the snips of hair clinging to her sweaty face. “I feel like a new woman,” said Frances Burgos, stroking her stylish bob. Petra beamed. When not locked up on Rikers Island, Petra cuts hair in her Spanish Harlem apartment, charging up to $50 a head. Today, she was working as a hairdresser at Rosie’s, getting lots of love from her fellow inmates but earning only $12 a week.
My captain-escort dropped me off here one afternoon and didn’t bother to stick around. Decorated with ripped leather chairs, the salon had scant amenities: no glossy magazines, no manicures, no colorings. But the beauty parlor did boast two hot presses, honey- and-almond shampoo, four sinks, pink cinder-block walls, and Petra’s considerable skills—beautifying her clients while masking the scars of their pre-prison lives.
Nowhere may a beauty salon be more needed than inside the women’s jail on Rikers Island. The women here appear to be in far worse shape than the men—more sickly, more beaten-up, more defeated. Statistics confirm they are more likely to be HIV-positive and mentally ill. Black eyes and bruises are lingering reminders of abusive boyfriends and husbands on the outside. And some women appear only half alive, zombies passing the weeks in a Thorazine stupor. More men have their rap sheets written on their faces—the half-healed scar of a buck-fifty, say—but the women here also carry the scars of lives hard-fought.
Petra has encountered so many disfigured heads on Rikers Island that she adapted her hair-cutting routine for the prisoner clientele. “Before I start with anyone,” she explained, “I ask, ‘What do you want? Do you have any scars? Do you have any place you don’t want me to touch?”’ Even with her ample experience, Petra’s newest client posed a challenge. Frances had an uneven scalp, a fact she revealed by pushing aside a lock of wavy hair near her crown, exposing a smooth, bald spot the size of a quarter.
“I’ve got a big dent because I’ve got a plate in my head,” said Frances, who was 28 years old and had four children. “I was seven months pregnant when I got shot five years ago. I was an innocent bystander on a street in Brooklyn.” Frances finished her story by lifting her lime green shorts, showing the foot-long scars that crawl up the inside of each thigh.
Every day, a few dozen prisoners visit this windowless room. To get a hair appointment, inmates must jot their names on a sign-up sheet; those going to court the next day jump to the top of the list. Fifteen minutes in a chair at this beauty parlor represents a chance for a woman to improve not only her appearance but also her odds of going home a little sooner.
“I really wish I could go to court tomorrow,” said an inmate accused of selling crack, as she admired her freshly cut hair in the mirror. “I would look proper in front of the judge and the D.A., to let them know I’m starting to make a change.” For a prisoner with no bail money and an impossible-to-reach public defender, getting her hair pressed and curled may be one of the only steps she can take to expedite her release.
As she moved around her salon, the hairdresser dragged one leg. When I asked Petra about her own scars, she rolled up her pants. “I don’t have a kneecap,” explained Petra, 42, glancing down at a leg that appeared eaten away, gnarled scar tissue replacing once smooth skin. “Thirteen years ago, I fell off a motorcycle. I was in a wheelchair for a year, then four years until I was off crutches.” Petra paused. “I’m always in pain,” she added.
Petra’s job helped her forget that this was her fifth trip to Rikers, that she’d already done one bid in state prison on a drug-selling charge, that she might soon have to make another trip upstate. To land a job cutting hair at Rosie’s this summer, Petra did not have to submit a resume or endure a series of interviews. She came in as a customer on a recent day and, frustrated by the long wait, picked up a pair of clippers and trimmed her own hair.
“She did a good job, and I said, ‘We might as well put you to use,’ “ said John Nance, the 53-year-old barber who has overseen the salon for 11 years. Like any manager, he knew how hard it was to find good employees. “We have to fire a lot of them because they don’t want to obey orders,” Nance said of his inmate stylists. “But we give them one week’s notice.”
Over the years, Nance has heard the stories of hundreds of inmates, and along the way he’s developed strong opinions about the criminal justice system. “A lot of girls are here that shouldn’t be here,” said Nance, who cuts hair at his own barbershop in Queens after he gets off work at Rosie’s. “They constantly come in, over and over. I don’t understand it. It’s mostly drug addicts in here.”
Though the barber tries to forget about the jail’s grim procession of junkies when he leaves each day, the women’s stories have inspired him to do his part to stop Rikers’ revolving door. He and his wife adopted two children born to a drug-addicted mother. “That’s two I’ll keep from here,” Nance explained.
As the salon’s 3 p.m. closing time neared, the day’s last customers trickled out the door and the hair dryer’s noisy hum stopped. “I don’t get paid that much here,” Petra said, as she checked her supply of shampoo and cleaned her clippers. “But it’s relaxing to me. I’m doing something I do on the street, so I feel a little freer.” At the officer’s desk by the door, the hairdresser traded her tools—her scissors, comb, trimmers, and clippers—for her inmate ID card. The guard frisked Petra, and prisoner #5617359J limped back to her cell.
In Captain Grillo’s Garage
WHEN RAZOR COUNTING and gang tracking fail to keep the prisoners under control, Rikers’ leaders descend on a garage located next door to the car wash on the island’s north side. Antenen, the jails’ spokesman, brought me here one afternoon and pressed the buzzer by the entrance. A door rose, revealing a cavernous warehouse. Equipment climbed the walls and spread across the floor—stacks of riot helmets, toolboxes, a circular saw, fire extinguishers, Kevlar vests, hoses, a forklift, a pipe wrench, spit masks, wooden batons, plastic shields, mitts, and life preservers.
Captain James Grillo beamed when he discovered Antenen and I had come to check out his workplace, the garage holding all the equipment for the Emergency Services Unit. Depending on whom you ask, the ESU, or “boom squad,” is a group of dedicated officers with the toughest job on the island or a bunch of testosterone-fueled thugs who get a rush from brawling with the inmates. ESU guards break up riots, search cell blocks, and haul uncooperative inmates out of their cells.
The ESU employed only 16 guards when Grillo became its training captain seven years ago. Then Kerik arrived and expanded the ESU to 111 officers. At the same time, Kerik quadrupled the amount of money the Department of Correction spent on security equipment—a three-year budget of $2.5 million from 1993 to 1995 escalated to $10.1 million from 1996 to 1998. With every extra million dollars, trucks packed with shiny new weapons and other assorted high-tech gizmos arrived at Grillo’s garage.
As the U.S. prison population has exploded in recent years, so has the number of companies marketing products to jail officials, creating a multimillion-dollar industry. Grillo tests many of the latest products in this garage, transforming it into his own personal laboratory as he tries to discover new and better ways both to protect guards and control prisoners.
The captain began our tour by grabbing a Plexiglas shield with a battery pack on the back and silver wiring across the front. He planted his feet. “C’mon! Out of your cell!” Grillo shouted, shoving the shield toward an imaginary inmate. “We’re not going to use force. But this shield gives off 50,000 volts!” The captain flicked a switch, and bright blue sparks of electricity shot across the quarter-inch-thick piece of plastic. A loud crackling sound followed. “Most of the inmates will comply,” Grillo explained. “They don’t want to get shocked.”
Stun shields first arrived on Rikers Island in 1997, with the promise that both guards and inmates would suffer fewer bruises and broken bones. Behind this notion was the theory that the shield would scare prisoners into submission—not because a guard pressed it against their flesh, but because the mere sight of the sparking shield would transform inmates into Pavlovian dogs, who would quickly learn to exit their cells meekly rather than get zapped and dragged out by angry guards. By this measure, the agency’s 90 shields—bought at $545 a piece—have been effective.
But, of course, some inmates do get shocked. For these obstinate prisoners, an instructor’s guide provides helpful pointers: Aim for the back, arms, legs, and buttocks. Don’t aim for the eyes, testicles, scrotum, throat, spine, open wounds, or pregnant stomach.
In the beginning, the biggest hurdle to the shield’s effective use was not Amnesty International, but the guards’ timidity. “The officers didn’t want to hit the inmates with the shield—with all the oversight agencies we have,” Grillo said. “The inmate just got one little crack. It wasn’t intimidating enough.” Grillo had the shield’s battery pack rigged so the officer can no longer zap prisoners for only a second or two. Now every switch of the shield triggers a six-second shock of 50,000 volts.
Grillo disappeared for a moment, then returned cradling a sleek object resembling a video camera. “I want to show you something else,” he said. Across the room, one of Grillo’s officers pressed his hand against a metal door, then stepped away. Through the lens, I could make out a grainy black-and-white picture of his handprint. This device, called NightSight, uses technology originally marketed to the military to help soldiers track their enemies.
A handful of prisoners escape from the city’s jails each year, and the list of successful strategies is long and varied. Three inmates stole an officer’s Oldsmobile and drove over the bridge in 1980. Several prisoners have managed to swim to LaGuardia, while others have been pulled down by the bay’s vicious tides. And in 1999, an inmate escaped by clinging to the bottom of a truck.
Each missing person triggers an enormous manhunt. Now, instead of prowling around the island’s leafy areas or climbing through dirt to check under modular housing units, the guards can use NightSight. “This picks up body heat,” Grillo explained. “It’s totally incredible. A few years ago, we were looking for a guy in a field, and we found a couple eggs from a goose!”
To Grillo, the device represented a vote of confidence from his boss. “If it weren’t for Kerik, I wouldn’t have this, because this is $13,000,” said Grillo, rubbing his prized acquisition. “When I decided on this, he said, ‘OK, you got it, buddy.’ We bought one for each boat, and for the patrol vehicle, and the handheld one.” A mischievous grin crept across the captain’s face. “Now I got to butter him up to see if I can get $13,000 for something else,” he said.
And yet, Grillo’s garage does not contain all of the most expensive equipment purchased by the Department of Correction. In 1997, a new type of metal detector, the Body Orifice Security Scanner, known as the BOSS chair, arrived on Rikers. Instead of walking through the detector, inmates must sit on it. The $4500 chair beeps if a prisoner has any type of metal inside him—handcuff keys, razor blades, shanks.
Officer Brian Kirk walked over to join his boss’s show-and-tell tour as Grillo picked up one of his least expensive weapons, an eight-foot metal pole with a crossbar near the center and a U-shape at one end, which looked like it could pass for a medieval torture tool. The two men seized the crossbar, lifted the pole parallel to the ground, and jabbed it into the gut of an invisible prisoner. If an inmate is armed with a homemade weapon, they explained, the device pins him against a wall.
Grillo moved on to another favorite piece of equipment: riot vests. The Department of Correction would later award a $4.8 million contract to purchase 11,000 vests for jail guards. Kirk slipped on one of the half-inch-thick vests, and Grillo inspected it as if he were a football coach checking his players’ equipment before a big game. “It came without the shoulder pads,” Grillo explained. “Then we had an officer stabbed in the shoulder, so we had them add shoulder pads.”
Next on Grillo’s tour was a 36-inch wooden baton, which looked like it could have been hanging from a cop’s waistband. The captain grabbed the baton and lunged forward. “You always aim lower than the throat,” he said. “And you can use it to lock the guy’s arms back.” Grillo dropped the wooden baton and picked up a shorter, sleeker version known as a Celayaton. “That’s the same thing they use in these third-world countries where they do a lot of caning,” Kirk explained. A sticker on the Celayaton stated “Made in Indonesia.”
Grillo grew animated as he described how—armed with a Celayaton instead of an old-fashioned wooden baton—a guard can bang an inmate without breaking his bones. “This is new technology,” he said. “It’s a nonlethal weapon. If you are starting to have a problem with an inmate, you may not be able to mace him. Now you have another alternative. Everything is nonlethal. We hope to keep things that way. Unless they escalate...”
By this time, Antenen had left the garage and was outside making calls on his cell phone. I figured he would not be pleased to hear this last bit of Grillo’s monologue. The captain could not seem to stop himself, to hide his enthusiasm for a job that outsiders might think borders on the barbaric. As if to combat such a judgment, and to emphasize the importance of all the equipment cluttering his garage, Grillo recalled his earlier days on Rikers.
“When I was in HDM [House of Detention for Men] in 1986, we had guys with their throats cut, guys with their ears cut off,” said Grillo, who became a jail guard in 1978. “It was a regular bloodbath. It was the worst jail on Rikers Island, and I was the deputy warden in charge of security. Morale was terrible. All day long we were fighting.”
Today, there are fewer than a dozen stabbings and slashings a month on Rikers Island. But Grillo believes in being prepared. Perhaps the best evidence of his attitude was the armored personnel carrier parked in front of his garage. In recent years, Grillo has purchased enough military equipment to outfit a small army—two armored personnel carriers, a crash truck, and a 125-foot boom crane from the German military.
The captain says this equipment is for “when there is a serious incident on Rikers Island.” But these vehicles’ true purpose seemed more to do with giving guards another way to remind the prisoners who runs Rikers. Officers bring the crash truck to respond to minor disturbances in the jail yards. Like grade-school kids infatuated with go-karts, they joke about driving the tanks along the streets of Rikers in the middle of the night.
Perhaps this is the perfect snapshot of post-Cold War America: plenty of leftover military equipment and no one to fear except our own prisoners. After spending countless hours obsessing about the finer points of body armor and riot vests and stun shields, Grillo was eager to try out his purchases. But what “serious incidents” have actually required the use of his armored personnel carriers and boom crane and crash truck? “We haven’t had anything,” Grillo said. “It’s killing me it’s been so quiet.”
AN OFFICER PUSHED A METAL FOOD CART into the Bing and parked it in front of cell #1. Unlocking the door’s slot, the guard shoved a tray of food inside. Before he could shut the slot, however, the occupant of cell #1 thrust his arm out the door. He had spied me outside his cell and begun hollering. “I want to talk to her!”
“Move your arm out of the food slot,” said the officer, who kept one hand on the heated cart stocked with dozens of lunches.
“I got things to address!” the inmate shouted.
It was “feeding time” in cell block 1 South in the Bing, the most soul-deadening place on Rikers Island. On Rikers, there are five separate Bings, or punitive segregation units—for men, women, adolescent girls, adolescent boys, and mentally ill inmates. But when people refer to “the Bing,” they usually mean the men’s unit, officially called the Central Punitive Segregation Unit, which occupies a five-story addition to the Otis Bantum Correctional Center. This 2000-bed jail is one of Rikers’ newest, a high-tech facility with prefab cells and sliding doors operated by switches in a central control room. From the outside, the slate-colored building with bright blue trim bears little resemblance to Rikers’ older jails.
The Bing was created in 1988 as a management tool, a place to put all the most rebellious prisoners together in order to make the rest of the city’s jails run more smoothly. Today, two-story cell blocks run along each side of the Bing, creating the illusion that it is an airy, spacious place. But from inside its 72-square-foot cells, of course, the place looks quite different.
On this day, Rikers’ jail-within-a-jail held 269 men, who spend all day alone, locked inside rooms just big enough to spread their arms or walk a few steps. Unlike inmates elsewhere on Rikers, these prisoners exit their cells only for a shower or “recreation,” which is an hour alone in an outdoor cage. There are no televisions, no visits to the law library, no chances to gossip in the mess hall. The primary occupation of the men here seems to be the struggle to stay sane.
Showing me around the Bing this morning were Leroy Grant, the warden of the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, and Angelo Rivituso, then the deputy warden in charge of the Bing. Grant is 6-5, with a basketball player’s build and the sort of imposing presence that seems to befit a Bing warden. At the moment, Grant did not look pleased that the occupant of cell #1 had interrupted his tour, creating chaos in front of a guest.
“What’s the problem?” asked Grant, who wore a navy jacket with four gold buttons, a black tie, and one gold star on each shoulder.
“It’s a pleasure to see someone in authority by here,” the inmate said.
“Y’all right?” Grant asked. “Take your arm out.”
The inmate did not deliver a litany of gripes. Not about today’s lunch of steamed carrots, spaghetti with meat sauce, white bread, and Kool-Aid, nor about anything else. What he wanted, it seemed, was a little attention. “Can I have your business card?” he asked the warden.
Grant ignored this stab at humor, but he’d already given the inmate what he wanted. The inhabitant of cell #1 pulled his arm inside, and the officer shut his food slot.
Mealtimes are the most chaotic periods of the day in the Bing, sometimes dragging on for two hours. Almost every day, someone shoves an arm—or occasionally even his head and shoulders—out of his slot. Prisoners scream all day long, but they know the best way to get a response is to hold a one-arm protest during mealtime.
Sometimes, inmates have a legitimate grievance—an illness, a missed weekly phone call, a suicidal urge. Sometimes, they just want to taunt their jailers. For men locked in their cells all day, mealtime brings not only food but also a chance to get a tiny taste of power. In this setting of extreme isolation, putting an arm through a food slot can seem like a desperate grab for recognition.
The occupant of cell #2 tossed his overcooked carrots into the hallway before the guard could lock his slot. If more than one prisoner at a time refuses to let the officer shut his food slot, the guard halts his midday routine. The mantra for maintaining control in the Bing is “Two slots, everything stops.” It takes only two inmates to dangle their arms out of their cells, the deputy warden explained, before “food is flying.” Prisoners fling veal patties and apples across the cell block, and they squirt shampoo bottles filled with urine and Kool-Aid at officers passing by. Sometimes, female guards even encounter prisoners trying to masturbate on them through an open food slot.
To regain control, Bing officers are supposed to follow a strict protocol. “After we exhaust all our IPC [interpersonal communication skills],” Grant explained, “then we have to bring in the officers with the stun shields and OC [oleoresin capsicum, or pepper spray] and get him to comply.” Getting the prisoner to comply often means performing a “cell extraction”—entering an inmate’s cell, forcing him facedown onto the ground, cuffing him behind his back, and hauling him out.
A typed document, known as the “24-Hour Report,” circulates around Rikers each morning, detailing these incidents and any other “use of force.” Between July 1998 and July 1999, there were 496 use-of-force incidents in the Bing, including this typical incident from May 29, 1999:
At 1225 hours, in 1 South Cell 27, Inmate Malik...refused repeated orders to close his food slot....Under the supervision of Captain Lomas, Officers Malone (E.I.S. Electronic Immobilization Shield ), Wilson (Legs), Evans (Right Arm), Hill (Left Arm), and Guzman (Handcuffs) restrained Inmate Malik with a 6 second application of the E.I.S., control holds, and the application of handcuffs; and removed him from the cell. Inmate Malik refused medical treatment and no injuries were noted. No injuries were reported by staff.
Jail officials and their critics agree that the use of stun shields and pepper spray has led to a drop in the number of broken bones and bruises in the Bing. But some prisoners do still get hurt. During May and June of 1999, Bing inmates were injured in about half of the 129 use-of-force incidents. Their injuries ranged from a scratched arm and a swollen wrist to broken teeth, multiple contusions to the face and nose, and an asthma attack triggered by pepper spray.
There are far fewer serious injuries in the Bing today largely because of a class-action lawsuit brought by the Legal Aid Society in 1993. This suit exposed rampant abuse, revealing that between 1988 and 1998 guards seriously injured at least 300 Bing inmates. Broken bones, perforated eardrums, and fractured skulls were fairly common here several years ago.
Perhaps the most damning document collected in this lawsuit was a report prepared for the Legal Aid Society by Vincent M. Nathan, who has been a court monitor in prison reform litigation cases for more than 20 years. Nathan wrote:
The CPSU [Central Punitive Segregation Unit] occupies the third ring of hell in the field of corrections in the United States. Staff’s behavior in this highly secure unit is...psychopathic behavior. Not only do officers respond to any form of aggression with punches and kicks, they actively seek out their victims and punish them brutally for verbal insults and insubordination; staff inflict “greeting beatings” to establish their turf or, perhaps in some cases, just for sheer perverted pleasure....CPSU supervisors, including wardens, have deliberately adopted terror as their underlying management philosophy.
As part of their settlement with the Legal Aid Society, Rikers officials added 300 cameras to the Bing and now document every cell extraction. To show how he monitors his guards, Rivituso, the deputy warden, led me into his air-conditioned office on the Bing’s third floor, where he kept a popcorn popper, a jar of homemade pickled jalape1o peppers, and a stash of videotapes depicting his officers wrestling inmates out of their cells.
A bulletin board across from Rivituso’s desk featured a row of Polaroids of the Bing’s worst inmates. The most notorious one was a 22-year-old Blood named Peter Showers. Grant pulled out a two-page list of Showers’s infractions: refusing to have his cell searched, assaulting staff, threatening inmates, arson. When Showers comes to Rikers, officers do not wait for him to break Rikers’ rules again; he goes straight to the Bing.
I was not permitted to interview Showers or any of the other prisoners in the Bing. So I asked to speak with an inmate who worked in the Bing, one of the men who held the job of “suicide prevention aide.” What I got was an interview with Samuel, an affable 40-year-old with a missing front tooth, who had been locked up for 10 months on a cocaine possession charge. Samuel and I stood next to the “bubble,” the glass-enclosed control room outside the cell block, as he told me about his job.
“I watch the inmates to make sure they’re not attempting to injure themselves or commit suicide,” he explained. “If an inmate is attempting to hang up, I contact an officer. Then I lift the inmate up so the noose is no longer around his neck, and the officer cuts him down. If the inmate is cutting himself up, I’m to stand outside the cell and wait till the officer comes to disarm the inmate. I’m supposed to make, like, a tourniquet or a patch press to slow down the bleeding.” Samuel demonstrated by pushing his palm against the inside of his wrist. “Or stop the bleeding, if I’m lucky,” he said.
Samuel is one of several suicide prevention aides who patrol the Bing, earning 50 cents an hour to peer inside cell windows and make sure none of their fellow inmates are trying to kill themselves. “A lot of guys—they have a very hard persona, but you get talking to them and they’re just young guys,” said Samuel, who is older than most of the inmates in the Bing, where the average age is 23.
“They’re just followers, following what’s hot right now,” he continued. “A lot of times, guys lose hope, especially guys who are facing a lot of time. Their wives are leaving them, their girlfriends are leaving. I try to reassure them that even people who are not in prison, their relationships go south for whatever reason, and that’s just a part of life.”
So far, nobody has tried to hang himself on Samuel’s watch. He’d been a suicide prevention aide for only a month, working the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift, but already all the prisoners seemed to know him, or at least know his voice. If he showed up a few minutes after 10 p.m., the inmates chided him for being late.
Samuel’s current job could not be more different from the last one on his resume: stock manager at the Warner Bros. store in Times Square, supervising workers as they lined the shelves with Tweety Bird T-shirts and Bugs Bunny drinking glasses. In an unexpected way, though, Samuel said, his stint at Warner Bros. helped prepare him for his current position, since they’re both “standing-type jobs.”
As Samuel spoke, the warden stood a few feet away, monitoring all of his words. Perhaps to placate the warden, Samuel adopted a demeanor of complete deference. He kept his hands clasped behind his back, as if he were wearing a pair of invisible handcuffs. When Samuel finished his spiel, the warden stepped forward. “His role is very significant,” Grant said. “A lot of guys feel loneliness and a sense of despair. He can go over to them and let them know they’re not the only ones going through this. He plays a vital role helping them cope.” Samuel stayed silent as the warden spoke, and soon an officer came to lead him away.
Grant and Rivituso escorted me out of the Bing and past the “staging area”—a curve in the hallway where guards suit up before storming into the Bing. Riot vests, fireproof jackets, firemen’s boots, metal helmets, and gas masks lined wooden shelves. Samuel’s words seemed to linger in Grant’s mind; without any prodding, the warden steered the conversation back to suicide. “If you happen to have one of those experiences of a guy hanging up, there’s guilt,” Grant said. “I’ve had this as an officer. I saw a guy successfully hanging up. It leaves a hollowness.”
In his office, Warden Grant explained that he had been an officer at the Anna M. Kross Center 15 years earlier when an inmate tied a T-shirt to a cell door and hung himself. “You ask yourself a million questions,” said the warden, leaning back in his leather chair. Grant fingered his remote control and glanced across his desk at the three video screens, which allowed him to monitor every part of his jail. “It’s very painful,” he said. “You’re in touch with the fact that you’re supposed to be preserving life. It’s something that always stays with you.”
Nobody has killed himself in the Bing for several years, though there were six suicides in the city’s jails in 1999 and six in 1998. In the Bing, Rivituso said, “We had two attempts in the last four months of 1999 , and the SPA [suicide prevention aide] was the first to alert the officer. They had torn sheets tied around their necks, but in both cases their feet were on the ground. In one case, the guy was just sitting on the bed—he wasn’t even attached to anything.” Rivituso explained that they report such incidents to a central office only if a mental health worker determines it was a “bona fide” suicide attempt.
“With inmate suicide attempts, we have nonserious and serious,” Grant said. “In both these cases, we viewed it as an attempt for these individuals to avoid doing their time.” Training for Bing guards includes warnings about prisoners trying to feign insanity in order to escape their solitary confinement and move into a less punitive setting.
“We call them Bing beaters,” Rivituso added. “They play like they’re crazy so they can get out of the Bing and be in a dorm with people who really are off so they can take advantage of them. We all saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. McMurphy plays cards with all the M.O.’s [mental observation patients] and wins their money. We have a lot of McMurphys here.”
One minute later, an assistant opened the door to the warden’s office and handed Rivituso a slip of paper. Signed by a doctor, the form upgraded a recent incident to a suicide attempt. In this instance, a Bing prisoner had tied a sheet around his neck and attached it to a vent cover in his cell around 2 a.m. I asked the warden and deputy warden if this was one of the two suicide attempts they had just mentioned. “No,” Rivituso said. “This would be the third.”
The interruption seemed to push my hosts slightly off-balance. On our tour, Grant had used corporate jargon to describe his job. “We try to operate from a preventive management approach,” he’d said. “Our goal is to create a win-win atmosphere.” But suddenly the Bing seemed less a well-managed cell block than a place of horror, where officers confront the seemingly impossible task of keeping prisoners alive in a place designed to crush their souls.
Rivituso handed the doctor’s form to Grant, who stared at the sheet a few moments. Neither the warden nor the deputy warden could recall the incident, and they wondered aloud whether this particular inmate was actually one of theirs.
Perhaps such incidents are hard to remember because so many Bing prisoners engage in similar behavior. There may have been only two—or now three—“official” suicide attempts in the Bing so far this year, but that number tells only a fraction of the story. There were more than 30 incidents of self-injurious behavior in the Bing during the first five months of 1999. In January, an inmate was found lying in his cell with a string around his neck, saying that he heard voices telling him to hang up. A Bing prisoner lit his jumpsuit on fire in February. In March, an inmate sliced both his wrists with a razor and claimed to have swallowed seven pills. Some of these inmates were sent to other jails, some back to the same cell block, and some to the Bing for mentally ill inmates. These incidents might sound like suicide attempts, but here on Rikers Island they are called “manipulative gestures.”
A Sense of Humor
LATER THAT AFTERNOON, I watched as 200 men marched single-file into a cavernous tent, their backs straight and their arms stiff by their sides. The inmates wore buzz cuts and army fatigues—the required attire for Rikers’ military-style boot camp, known as the High Impact Incarceration Program.
On this August afternoon, the men were getting a break from their rigid regimen and a chance to see an Off-Broadway show. They were not quite sure what to expect. Six weeks earlier, they had sat through a concert of classical music. In recent years, luckier inmates had seen concerts by dead prez, Fat Joe, and Wu-Tang Clan, courtesy of Stress, a hip-hop magazine based in Hollis, Queens.
Watching the parade of prisoners was Danny Hoch, a 28-year-old actor sporting Adidas running pants and a baseball hat facing backward. The inmates seemed not to recognize Hoch, though he had been making art out of their culture for the past three years, touring the country with his one-man show, Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop, which had sold out for 14 weeks at P.S. 122 in the East Village.
Today marked Hoch’s first trip back to Rikers since 1994, when he’d finished a five-year stint teaching drama classes to inmates. A few months earlier, Hoch had filmed a scene for his new movie inside the prison barge floating off the South Bronx. As a thank-you to the agency, he offered to do a free show on Rikers. I asked Antenen, the jails’ spokesman, if I could join the audience, and though he’d never heard of Hoch, he agreed to let me watch.
The last men to enter found seats and the show began. Hoch delivered rapid-fire monologues in the voices of various characters—a stressed-out prison guard, a flirtatious teenager, a Cuban street peddler. The crowd laughed at Hoch’s skits, but none got them hollering as loudly as when he grabbed a broom and became “Andy,” an HIV-positive inmate who passed the hours of a long prison sentence by working as a porter.
As Andy pushed a broom around the floor, his speech grew faster, darting from topic to topic, from the aggravation of working at McDonald’s to the prison’s overcooked carrots. By the end of his 13-minute rant, Andy became completely unhinged. “I’m dying!” the inmate shouted, slamming down his broom. “I’M DYING IN THIS MOTHERFUCKER!”
Hoch-as-Andy paused, looking off to the side at an invisible guard. “Ay, everything’s all right over here,” he said, forcing himself to sound calm. “Don’t push the button, Hal. There’s no problem.” He picked up his broom and began sweeping again. “Hey, Hal, you don’t gotta push the button, see?” As if to prove he was still sane, Andy hummed as he swept. “Do-do-di-do.” Then Andy dropped to the floor, and the audience could almost see the guard looming over him. “Go ‘head,” Andy said. “Search me. You wanna search me? No problem. I told ya, there’s nothin’ wrong. No fightin’. Just got a little excited. See? You don’t gotta push the button.”
This was the grimmest moment in Hoch’s show, and when he spoke these lines to an East Village audience, everyone was silent. But here on Rikers, the men slapped their thighs and howled with laughter. In the back of the room, several guards wiped tears from their cheeks. They all knew what would happen if Hal did push the button, how the boom squad would arrive with their riot vests and stun shields and wooden batons, how the guards would remind Andy who was in charge.
They did not need to stretch their imaginations to understand why Andy was so frustrated and enraged, to understand how the powerlessness of prison had weakened his grip on sanity. Armed with only a broom and a monologue, the actor had peeled away the layers of spin and laid bare the island’s constant tension between not only prisoners and guards, but also control and terror. “That’s what happens to you in here,” one inmate whispered to me later. “You start buggin’ out.”
Now, though, the prisoners watched Hoch and roared so hard they became a sea of open mouths, all gold caps and missing teeth. It was, for me, something of a mad dream—the inmates laughing at the depiction of their own degradation, courtesy of their jailers, while their jailers laughed too—and I left soon thereafter, having confirmed the wardens’ boasts that their mission was successful, that the incarceration of 14,600 souls was complete. Not long afterward, Kerik left too, armed with the lessons of Rikers Island as he stepped into the role of NYPD commissioner and into the national media spotlight. Meanwhile, from the window seats of commuter planes descending into LaGuardia, the view remains the same: refurbished school buses carrying shackled New Yorkers back and forth across the Rikers Island bridge.