After Uprising at Rikers, Guards Are Said to Have Beaten Inmates
By JAMES BARRON
August 16, 1990
New York City officials are investigating allegations that correction officers lined up and beat inmates with nightsticks in a jailhouse corridor on Rikers Island several hours after subduing a disturbance there on Tuesday night.
The chairman of the Board of Correction, Robert Kasanof, said the inquiry would focus on whether there was ”systematic nightstick clubbing of prisoners” in retaliation for the uprising. Lawyers who specialize in prisoners’ rights cases said the beatings had left the walls in the ground-floor hallway covered with blood.
After an hourlong meeting with Mayor David N. Dinkins at City Hall, Mr. Kasanof said he had asked Investigation Commissioner Susan E. Shepard ”to conduct an investigation of the systematic nightstick clubbing of prisoners after the institutions were fully secure – what is known as a payback.” He added, ”There is substantial evidence warranting such an investigation.”
Estimates of Injuries Rise
How many inmates were hurt during the disturbance and the reported beatings was not clear, but estimates of injuries from the night of violence on Rikers have climbed well beyond the Correction Department’s figures of early yesterday, when it said 35 inmates and 12 guards had been hurt.
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A stream of ambulances ferried wounded inmates and guards to hospitals through the day yesterday. The Emergency Medical Services said 162 people had been treated at eight hospitals.
Most of the injuries appeared to be minor – cuts and bruises that did not require hospitalization. But E.M.S. officials said at least two prisoners were in critical condition, including one identified as Anthony Mitchell, who was described as an instigator of the disturbance Tuesday evening.
The retaliatory beatings, if confirmed, would be a new trauma for the city’s already strained criminal justice system, and may raise new questions about how the city keeps order in its jails and about the correction officers who work there.
Rikers, in particular, has shown signs of stress in recent months. When 66 officers and inmates were hurt in a melee last month, Mr. Kasanof called the incident ”particularly distressing and ominous” because it suggested that the city could not control inmates at a time of relatively little overcrowding.
The turmoil on Tuesday came after hundreds of correction officers had blocked the bridge to the island prison complex for a day and a half in a wildcat protest against what they called overly lenient treatment of inmates. The violence in the prison complex broke out soon after city officials announced an agreement with the correction officers’ union to call off the blockade.
At City Hall yesterday, Mr. Dinkins said he wanted Commissioner Shepard to give him a full report on what happened at Rikers both before and after the blockade ended.
”They’re going to examine all circumstances,” the Mayor said, referring to Ms. Shepard and the teams of investigators who began interviewing inmates, guards and other prison personnel yesterday. ”Any allegation will be pursued. I hope the investigation will not be limited to the allegations people are making. I hope they go beyond that.”
Mr. Dinkins also said there was a possibility that individual guards or their union as a whole would be fined for taking part in the blockade.
Systematic Clubbing Charged
The allegations of brutality involve an incident reported several hours after the inmate disturbance at the Otis Bantum Center, a maximum-security jail on Rikers. Michael Z. Letwin, the president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, said the guards had ”emptied out” entire dormitories, including parts of the jail untouched by the inmates’ disturbance.
Other lawyers said the correction officers had lined up the prisoners, faces to the wall, and had gone down the line, clubbing them from behind.
”There is photographic evidence of the blood on the wall,” said Mr. Letwin, whose group represents 1,000 New York City Legal Aid lawyers. ”There was no resistance, there was no provocation. It was like declaring open season on inmates.”
The Commissioner of Correction, Allyn R. Sielaff, said he had ”no evidence that excessive force was used.” He also said there was no retaliation by the guards.
Phil Seelig, the president of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, said, ”I have no information to substantiate” the allegations.
Evidence Reported Examined
But Mr. Kasanof, whose board is charged with evaluating the performance of the Correction Department, said Deputy Commissioner Arthur Sinai ”had an opportunity to look at the evidence.” He said investigators would determine what Mr. Sinai did or did not do or see, although he added that the deputy commissioner was not a target or a subject of the inquiry.
Mr. Sinai, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and former inspector general of the Federal Education Department, declined to discuss the matter. He said his staff had begun its own investigation Tuesday night and had turned over what evidence it gathered to the Department of Investigation yesterday.
Ted Katz, head of the Legal Aid Society’s project for prisoners’ rights, said tensions at Rikers had been building since an incident last week in which three inmates accused of attacking a guard were not charged with attempted murder, as the guards had hoped, but with three lesser charges -assault, first-degree robbery and promotion of prison contraband. Since then, Mr. Katz said, inmates have been calling his office to complain that guards ”were harassing inmates and trying to ‘get’ inmates.”
Mr. Katz speculated that the negotiations to end the guards’ blockade had led the officers to believe they had won the right to use more force. After an agreement was reached, officers who had helped block the entrance to Rikers poured into the prison, he said.
Guards Called ‘Pumped Up’
”They were very pumped up,” Mr. Katz said, adding that ”they were even flashing their guns on the bridge” and ”were not exactly in a law-abiding frame of mind.”
It was not possible yesterday to verify the allegations of brutality independently because the inmates at Rikers were locked in their cells and were not allowed to talk on the telephone.
A spokeswoman for the Correction Department, Deputy Commissioner Ruby Ryles, said one of the prisoners in critical condition, Mr. Mitchell, had stabbed two correction officers with a homemade knife. Mr. Mitchell, a detainee awaiting trial on weapons possession and bail-jumping charges, was taken to Elmhurst Hospital after he stabbed one officer in the chest and the other in the shoulder, Ms. Ryles said. He sustained his injuries in a confrontation with officers after the stabbings, she said.