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Rikers: ‘Every Day, a Slowly Brewing Riot’

August 25, 1990

NEW YORK (AP) _ Correction officers at Rikers Island call the 3-to-11 shift at the nation’s most populous jail ″the war tour.″ And they say the prisoners hold every advantage: in numbers, weapons and rules.

Two weeks ago, about 600 guards tried to change the rules. For two days they blockaded the lone bridge to the island, turning back food, medical supplies and even the corrections commissioner. They relented only after city officials agreed to ease restrictions on use of force against inmates.

″Every day, Rikers is a slowly brewing riot,″ said Robert Gangi, director of the Correctional Association, a private research group that studies the jail. ″Usually it’s the inmates who blow up, but here it was the COs who blew (by erecting the blockade). I’ve never heard of anything like it.″

The night the blockade ended, inmates in one unit rioted, and guards who quelled the rebellion allegedly lined up prisoners and systematically beat them with nightsticks.

″We control the jails, not you 3/8″ guards were said to have shouted.

When it was over, the injured included 142 inmates and 20 guards.

Also hurt during that tense two days were eight emergency medical technicians - the victims of attacks by guards at the blockade.

A second major incident occurred this past week, after an inmate was stabbed by an unknown assailant Tuesday night. A group of inmates refused to return to their cells and began setting fires. By the time order was restored, 25 guards and four inmates had suffered minor injuries, mostly smoke inhalation.

Although the blockade seemed to bring the jail to the edge of chaos, a union spokesman said it was a symptom, not a cause, of Rikers’ malaise.

″The officers had come to the conclusion they were in danger,″ said Jim Grossman. ″They simply didn’t feel safe anymore.″

Many never felt safe at a jail where the population doubled to 14,000 in 10 years, where prisoners routinely carry knives and homemade weapons, where there’s an average of a stabbing a day.

Each month for the past year and a half, the city’s jail system has set a new record for violent incidents.

Officers who directly supervise prisoners, meanwhile, carry no weapons.

″We don’t scare anyone anymore,″ says Phil Seelig, president of the officers’ union.

The penal complex occupies 440 acres on a chunk of land in the East River. It houses all sorts of inmates: men and women, juveniles and adults, the convicted and the accused, the celebrated and the unknown.

Always a violent, crowded place, Rikers in recent years has been flooded by an influx of drug outlaws, many of whom form gangs within the jail. Increasingly, the balance between order and anarchy has been determined by the prisoners themselves.

Confronted with an exploding jail population, the city opted for relatively inexpensive and easily constructed open dormitories rather than conventional concrete and steel cell blocks. Each dorm accommodates about 50 inmates.

In an interview published in Saturday’s editions of The New York Times, Allyn R. Sielaff, who took over the city’s jail system in March, criticized previous administrations for what he sees as spending too much energy expanding the jails and not enough on programs to make it safer.

″The dormitories were the quickest structures to put up, and the cheapest,″ he said. ″But they’re the toughest structures to supervise.″

He also said he intends to reverse conditions at Rikers Island in which guards are swiftly punished for the most minor infractions while inmates get put on a waiting list.

″When an inmate stabs or slashes somebody, when he attacks an officer, one should expect he would be taken out of the general population,″ Sielaff said. ″We had 500 stabbers and slashers mingling with the rest of the population.″

But he also said that hiring standards for corrections officers have been too lax in recent years.

Meanwhile, a federal judge is considering a new set of rules on the use of force by jail guards.

The revised guidelines, agreed to by the Correction Department and Legal Aid attorneys, were submitted for approval Friday to U.S. District Judge Morris E. Lasker of Manhattan. Lasker scheduled another hearing next week.

The Legal Aid Society began the court proceeding after the city decided to replace a 27-page directive on the use of force with a streamlined nine-page version as part of a settlement to a job action by guards at Rikers Island.

Legal Aid had complained that the nine-page guidelines went too far in relaxing restraints on guards.

The subsequent compromise list of rules, said Legal Aid attorney John Boston, ″restores all the important restrictions while removing excess verbiage. It is appropriate and serves everyone’s purpose.″

But Ernesto Marrero, a lawyer for the officers’ union, objected to specific language in the new directive as ″unduly restrictive.″

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