Judge Frees Rikers Inmate Who Said Prisoners Were Running the Jail and Running a ‘Fight Club’

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Spencer Platt
Spencer Platt

An environment of fear ruled by inmate “leaders” whose power overrides that of correction officers.

A gladiator-esque “fight club” organized for the amusement of said leaders, pitting poor inmates against each other for the hell of it.

Little access to food, mattresses, or sunlight.

This was the testimony of one Rikers Island inmate who was freed from confinement after a Manhattan state court judge ruled on Wednesday that the New York Department of Correction and Mayor Bill de Blasio had “utterly failed” him.

The decision by Judge April Newbauer, first reported by The Daily News, lays out the harrowing tale of Relator G, the pseudonym given to an inmate who was sent to Rikers in June after being charged with first degree burglary.

Relator G, who filed a complaint in October demanding his release after facing “squalid conditions” and “rampant violence” among inmates, said his stint in the much beleaguered jail, which is now going through a nasty COVID spike, was treacherous from the very outset.

Instead of being transferred to a housing unit within 24 hours of arriving to the jail in June, as per policy, Relator G testified he was held in an intake unit with 15 other inmates for three days. The unit had one bathroom and no mattresses.

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Later, Relator G was placed in a series of housing units and moved from two of them after facing assaults from other inmates. This was followed by an 11-day stint in a solo cell with no mattress, the judge’s ruling states. On some days, he received no food. On the days he did, his meals consisted of one serving of cereal and scoops of jelly.

While incarcerated, Relator G described a “skeleton staff” of correction officers who “ceded control” to other inmates referred to as “the leaders” of housing units. The leaders controlled access to food and water in the units, Relator G testified. To make phone calls, he had to “request permission” from his unit leader.

But perhaps the most egregious thing Relator G described, according to the ruling, was a “fight night” he said he was forced to participate in.

Relator G testified that the unit leaders forced inmates to fight in a small cell one Oct. night while others “crowded around and cheered.” After watching two fights, Relator G said he was tapped to fight himself and testified that he did so with “full force” against another man until the leader of his unit said he could stop.

The spoils of his fight: cigarettes and food.

According to Relator G, the correction officers in the unit had “full knowledge” of the fight night. Video evidence showed that after the first two fights, a correction officer told the leader to “quiet things down.” More video evidence shows another correction officer watching fights and not breaking them up.

When grilled by attorneys for the DOC why he never reported incidents of violence to staff, Relator G said he’d heard about potential retaliation for filing complaints.

In a statement to The Daily Beast, a DOC spokesperson said they have been "very transparent" about the crisis in their jails. "Our staffing issues, and conditions in the facilities were publicly discussed for months and we are continually working to correct these issues," the spokesperson said.

The office of Mayor Bill de Blasio did not return requests for comment.

The inmate’s horrific testimony lined up with recent reports from a court-appointed independent monitor of the jail that has been providing updates about violence in the jail since 2015. In an August report, the monitor described the jail as having a "pervasive high level of disorder and chaos" stemming from the culmination of decades of mismanagement and dysfunctional staffing practices.”

Many of the jail’s issues are due in part to a mass shortage of correction staff. The ruling notes that the day of the fight night, there were 1,467 correction officers who were out on sick leave and 31 officers who did not show up for a shift.

Attorneys representing the DOC acknowledged the staffing crisis, according to the ruling, but denied being “deliberately indifferent” to Relator G and his safety. They argued his injuries were not serious and that the leader of Relator G’s housing unit only “bullied” the man by denying him food and water and pressing him to fight.

They also fretted that a ruling in Relator G’s favor would “open the floodgates” to future legal challenges from inmates.

Despite these arguments, the judge disagreed and concluded the DOC “failed to act—and continues to fail to act—with reasonable care” to protect Relator G and others in its custody from violence.

She ruled that the DOC and de Blasio had “utterly failed” the public and Relator G by “ignoring the looming threat of a crisis” at the jail and not adopting an “all hands on deck” approach.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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