Kids on the inside

By Michelle Chen Mar 17, 2009

The beating death of a young prisoner at New York’s infamous Rikers Island jail was not an isolated incident; new evidence has emerged that even the facility’s staff was complicit in enforcing a system of brutality. According to local news reports, corrections officers and inmates have colluded in running an extortion ring known as The Program.Young inmates were subjected to a hierarchy premised on violent subjugation and extracting privileges like commissary money. Christopher Robinson, 18, suffered the consequences of refusing to play by the rules. The Times reported Monday on internal documents showing that

…extortion rings using the same jargon and rituals were operating in several areas of the jail housing about 600 inmates ages 16 to 18. Reports of inmate injuries dating to mid-2007 describe new inmates being regularly confronted by groups of other inmates and asked, “Are you wit’ it?” to determine whether they would comply with the demands of the ring, sometimes referred to as the “Team.” Those who refused received a “spanking,” meaning a beating, sometimes while the victims’ limbs were crossed in a position called the “chicken wing.”

In October, the official probe of the incident seemed unnervingly shallow; officials reportedly originally told Robinson’s family that he had died in his sleep. Earlier this year, three corrections officers were indicted on conspiracy charges. Rikers is a microcosm of the perverse structure and culture of youth incarceration. Advocacy groups point out that get-tough approaches to youth criminality are globally harmful—not only traumatizing youth (leading to increased suicide risk and exposure to sexual assault) but also increasing future risks of violence (and meanwhile providing fodder for the for-profit corrections industry and perpetuating entrenched racial disparities throughout the criminal process). In the end, the system exports its cruelty to the communities to which these youth return. It’s also clear that a prevention-based and community-oriented approach is far more effective in checking youth criminality at a lower cost to the public. The violent underworld that has thrived at Rikers, apparently with the complicity of those charged with “keeping order,” exposes the ethical distortions driving “public safety” policies that shackle our most precious resource. The current session of Congress is weighing legislation to promote alternatives to juvenile incarceration, but for a generation of youth now wasting away behind bars, real change may not come in time. Image: Charnel Robinson holding a picture of her son. Oates/ NY Daily News.