Rikers Island: prison stories

Rikers Island: prison stories


Rikers Island, the New York City jail complex that houses about 9,800 inmates, is one of the largest in the United States. It is also one of the most troubled.

After several inmate deaths, decades of lawsuits alleging inmate abuse and a two-and-a-half-year investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, the city in June agreed to let a federal monitor oversee reforms at the jail, which sits on a 413-acre bean-shaped island in the East River between the boroughs of Queens and the Bronx.

While the report said the causes of the widespread abuses at Rikers were “systemic,” the people who received the alleged mistreatment, were, of course, individuals.

Photographer Elizabeth Shafiroff sought out seven of these former inmates to hear their stories, which follow. Reuters was not able to independently verify their statements.

In response to questions from Reuters, a spokesman for Rikers Island Department of Correction (DOC) said: “Since Commissioner (Joseph) Ponte’s appointment last year, he has significantly reformed the care and custody of adolescent inmates, resulting in substantial decline in violence in the adolescent facility.”

The spokesman added that safety for staff and inmates is Commissioner Ponte’s “top priority” and that “DOC has a zero-tolerance policy with regards to abuse.”

Damien Norman (above), 20, said he was 17 while awaiting trial on Rikers Island in 2012 for robbery and said his wrist was broken in an incident involving a corrections officer.

Norman said that during one prison lockdown, a guard “bended my wrist all the way up to the highest and it popped.” Norman said he was sent to solitary confinement immediately after.

. New York, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Elizabeth Shafiroff

Eric, 19, who asked his last name not be used, said he was 17 in 2012 when he was held at Rikers Island for committing "a crime which was illegal."

During a search on the school grounds where inmates attend class, Eric said he was ordered to strip naked. When he refused, he said, he "got put in a headlock, officers started beating on me, punching me in my head, my body, kicking me, had me in fetal position, stomping on me.”

Directly after the incident Eric said the officers "put me in flexicuffs then they (pepper) spray." Eric said he was sent to solitary confinement after the incident because officers "said I assaulted an officer and that was that.”

Describing his experience at Rikers, Eric said, "Coming from the street to there just had me on guard. Being observant and just didn’t want to become a victim, which I did. After that, it just made me be more aggressive and hostile.”

. New York, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Elizabeth Shafiroff

Jared Peartree said he was 18 when his two-year incarceration at Rikers began in 2013. “My past kinda caught up with me,” Peartree said, declining to say why he was jailed. In an incident where inmates did not respond to a lock-in, Peartree said officers came in and sprayed inmates with multiple types of pepper spray.

He remembered his "skin feel like it’s coming off, can’t breathe, you can’t see, so you don’t know what to do." He also said he was put into the plastic handcuffs known as flexicuffs so tight "from my hands to my elbow is blue." Peartree said the inmates were beaten by "wooden sticks, four inches thick."

He said, "I recommend anybody from the age 16 to 21 not go to Rikers Island. It’s like the younger you are, that’s the one they actually will pick on the most. I turned 19 in there too, so I went with the adults. And when they with the adults, it’s much more respect. They don’t do the things they do with adolescents. They don’t try to put their hands on them or none of that. It’s like they give you your equal rights. And I think that’s not fair ’cause we younger."

. New York, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Elizabeth Shafiroff

Gregory Gonzalez, 25, said he was held on Rikers for two months when he was 18, starting in 2008. Gonzalez said he was incarcerated for not completing community service and not paying overdue tickets.

Gonzalez said he once was slapped in the face and punched in his ribs by correctional officers for turning a sock inside-out incorrectly after a visit from his mother.

Gonzalez said, "I just got slapped while my hands were on the wall, right in the face. After he slapped me, I put my hands back on the wall and they started to punch me in my ribs and my body and I fell to the ground."

He said he was told, “Oh, well it happens,” when he reported the incident to another officer.

. Poughkeepsie, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Elizabeth Shafiroff

Donte Walker, 21, said he was 16 when he was first detained and served time on Rikers from 2010 to 2012 for assault, possession of a firearm and armed robbery.

After one altercation with another inmate, Walker says he was put in flexicuffs and punched "mad hard, like real hard" in the face by a correctional officer.

When asked if he reported the incident, he said, “’Cause who you report it to? You gonna report it to another CO which he’s cool with – he probably eats lunch with everyday. And he’s gonna tell him and now they gonna whoop your ass even more.”

. New York, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Elizabeth Shafiroff

Zumana Karamoko, 19, said he was 16 when he was held at Rikers in 2012 for armed robbery and two assaults. In an incident after a lockdown, Karamoko said an officer pulled him out of a class, escorted him into another room and started beating him.

Karamoko said he attempted to fight back and was beaten by a group of officers who then shot him with pepper spray. "When the riot shield guys came, they all jumped me,” he said. “And then they dragged me all the way to the intake. And I was leaking from my head.”

Karamoko said he was punished for assaulting an officer in the incident and said, "My experience at Rikers Island was crazy. The COs (corrections officers) treat inmates bad in there.”

. New York, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Elizabeth Shafiroff

Eric Harmon, now 20, said he was incarcerated on Rikers Island from 2010 to 2011, when he was 16, on a drug charge. In one incident, Harmon said he was taken to a room without cameras. He said he was hit by a correctional officer and he struck back.

"He smacked me. Me and him started fighting. A couple other COs (correctional officers) jumped in. They beat me up for a little bit."

Harmon said he did not report the incident because "I never seen a good outcome of someone reporting a CO."