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Teen violence at Rikers defies reforms

Last year, corrections officers at the Robert N. Davoren Youth Center wrote up 1,722 fights, in a facility that holds only about 600 inmates

More than three years after the beating death of 18-year-old inmate Christopher Robinson prompted the New York City Department of Correction to crack down on violence between inmates at the Rikers Island detention center for adolescents, data from the department and accounts from families and attorneys of young people detained at Rikers suggest inmate-on-inmate violence remains rampant at the facility.

The Correction department has taken a series of measures to prevent inmate-on-inmate violence at the Robert N. Davoren Center, which receives 16- to 18-year old male detainees awaiting trials. It added security cameras, created a training program for officers, and increased the officer-inmate ratio.

But last year, in a jail that held an average of 624 young offenders on any given day, Davoren correction officers wrote up some 1,722 fight infractions, 32 of which resulted in serious injuries. Corrections officers issue these infractions to instigators — or, where who started the fight can’­t be determined, all parties — in any form of physical struggle with another inmate. Because the department only began to release tallies of inmate fights after Robinson’s death, it’s not possible to compare the level of recent violent incidents with those pre-2008.

This spring, two former inmates at the Rikers youth facility are going on trial in connection with Robinson’s 2008 beating death, which occurred after Robinson refused to participate in an extortion racket these inmates allegedly helped run as handpicked enforcers of corrections officers. The scheme, known as “the Program,” demanded young new arrivals at Rikers hand over control of privileges like phone calls or TV time, and those who failed to cooperate risked beatings.

Two correction officers reached a plea deal last October — one to assault, the other to attempted assault — and are serving one- and two-year sentences. In all, 12 young former inmates were indicted for alleged roles in the operation.

“The Program,” is by all reports a thing of the past. But violent fights still break out on a daily basis, and inmate advocates charge the Department of Correction is not doing enough to prevent them.

Last November, Dusetree Taylor, also 18, was beaten so badly by a group of adolescent inmates at the Davoren Center that he fell unconscious and was hospitalized, according to his attorney, Jonathan Chasan of the Legal Aid Society. His mother says Taylor was bleeding from both eyes and both ears.

Chasan asserts that correction officers failed to properly protect Taylor. The teen had been brought to Rikers from an upstate detention facility in order to testify against a man who had attacked him five months earlier in a Bronx holding cell.

“Adolescent beatings happen because staff fail to take appropriate measures to protect vulnerable inmates, to separate aggressive gang members from their victims or potential victims,” charged Chasan.

Department of Correction spokesperson Sharman Stein declined to comment on Taylor’s allegations. The department, she says, “takes elaborate efforts to protect adolescent inmates.” It separates out members of rival gangs. It has reduced the number of young people assigned to each section of the dormitory-style housing, and added two security positions for every area. Punitive segregation cells segregate violent offenders from the rest of the population.

Inevitably — and daily — violence breaks out anyway. “Adolescents are a challenging population wherever they are,” noted Stein, “spontaneous, energetic, prone to fighting amongst themselves, and, as we have determined at DOC in the past year, nearly half has a mental health diagnosis.”

Following Robinson’s death, the Department of Correction pledged that Rikers officers would investigate every serious injury, including apparent accidents. Stein says that officers who witness an incident are required to report the event to a supervisor. The captain in charge must also investigate all incidents in which an inmate is injured in a fight. “Any available surveillance videos are reviewed; the captain takes statements from inmates and staff,” said Stein.

But the teens frequently do not cooperate, whether they are victims or witnesses to violent incidents. Inmates face serious repercussions for ratting out fellow inmates, noted Andrew Stoll, a private attorney who sits on the Corrections Committee of the New York City Bar Association and has sued the department and reached settlements on behalf of clients injured in fights at the Davoren Center. The Department of Correction refers all assault incidents with evidence to the Bronx District Attorney. But if a victim doesn’t cooperate, Stoll asserts, prosecutors are not likely to move forward with a case against an alleged perpetrator. “Any significant assault is a crime,” protested Stoll. “On the street it would be prosecuted in a heartbeat.”

Stein says her department makes the best case it can to the District Attorney. “Even if the injured inmate won’t prosecute, the DOC will take the case to the District Attorney’s office as long as there is a Correction staff witness or other corroborating witness, or video of the incident,” she wrote in an email statement.

Steven Reed, a spokesperson for the Bronx District Attorney’s office, says the DA does the best it can with the evidence available. “No matter what the location of a crime, without the cooperation of the victim it is often difficult to meet the legal burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt that an individual is responsible for committing the offense,” said Reed. “There are instances in which we can move forward primarily on the strength of the forensic evidence alone, but that too presents obvious challenges.”

Within the Department of Correction, inmates’ refusal to report on fellow inmates helped thicken the smokescreen that obscured the Program before Robinson’s death. Correction commissioner Martin Horn, who oversaw the agency from 2003 until the summer of 2009, says he saw a stream of “accident” reports coming out of Davoren. “Inmates were presenting at medical sites with broken bones or broken jaws, and claiming they had gotten it falling out of bed,” said Horn. “They wanted to protect themselves from future beatings. They didn’t want to be seen as a rat.”

Another barrier, inmates’ attorneys allege, is correction officers in the jail itself. Kadeem John, an adolescent inmate, is currently suing the Department of Correction and six correction officers, as well as three supervisors and commissioner Dora Schriro, in federal court. In June 2010, he lost consciousness after being beaten by a group of five inmates in the presence of guards who “turned a blind eye to the assault,” according to the complaint.

In a statement to the judge, John’s counsel alleges that the Department of Correction acknowledged possessing a video recording of the beating but later reported that “No video recordings regarding this incident have been preserved.” (Correction declined to comment, citing pending litigation.) John’s legal complaint alleges that since the attack, he continues to suffer headaches, blurred vision, and memory problems, and that a follow-up hospital exam revealed renal lacerations from the beating.

No one suggests correction officers have an easy job. As in all jails, the incarcerated outnumber the guards. Young people held at Davoren typically live in dormitory-style housing areas where they can’t always escape attackers. Former Department of Correction commissioner Horn describes an exceptionally violent high school scene, with cliquey gangs and not much to do besides pick on those who aren’t “with it.” Tensions run high, gang rivalries spark, and disobedience is par for the course.

“Adolescents are a different animal, walking hormones, no impulse control when they form little cliques. So when they fight, they fight more than one on one,” said Sidney Schwartzbaum, President of the Assistant Deputy Wardens/Deputy Wardens.

“It’s just everything about Rikers,” says attorney Nancy Ginsburg, director of the Legal Aid Society’s Adolescent Intervention and Diversion Project, which represents 13- to 18-year-old youth in the adult criminal courts. “It’s the way it’s set up, there’s just not enough eyes on the inmates. They’re teenage boys, some of whom are facing a lot of time and feel like they don’t have a lot to lose.”

The Department of Correction discloses only the staffing ratio based on the total number of officers assigned to the jail, not the officers on duty at any given time. The official 2008 staffing ratio at the Robert N. Davoren Center was one officer per 3.7 adolescent inmates. After Robinson’s death, Corrections increased staffing to one officer per 2.2 adolescent inmates.

But the Correctional Association of New York, a venerable prison reform group, estimated that only one staff member was on duty for every 50 inmates at the time of Robinson’s death. Afterward, Commissioner Horn raised the staff-inmate ratio in the high-risk Davoren housing unit to one in 25. Legal Aid Society’s Ginsberg points out that even 25-to-1 is an unusually low level of staffing; the ratio is eight to one in New York City’s juvenile detention facilities, which hold young people who were under the age of 16 when they committed a crime.

Officers and prison advocates both see lopsided staffing ratios as a serious threat to inmate and officer safety. In an emailed statement Norman Seabrook, President of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, the New York City union representing jail correction officers, called conditions in city jails “life-threatening…on a daily basis” for officers. “Jail violence will continue to be a crisis facing this Department no matter what facility we’re talking about as long as staffing levels remain at dangerously low levels,” he said.

Unable to boost staffing levels, Horn expanded a pre-existing education program called the Institute for Inner Development, which trains officers to mentor their adolescent charges and lead group sessions aimed at helping them build life skills and emotional strength. The program, which is still in effect, teaches officers specific techniques for interacting with and managing the tempestuous teen population. Conflict management, group dynamics, and gang intervention are all part of the training, which 98 out of the 295 officers working with adolescents on Rikers have received.

“Two kids can be together with their arms around each other and then try to kill each other,” Horn said. “We tried to familiarize officers with that — you can’t deal with youngsters the way you’d deal with adults. They’re not going to listen.”

Additional reporting by Alice Brennan