Newly surfaced video shows how a ‘fight night’ unfolded within an empty cell in Rikers Island as guards in the sparsely-staffed unit refuse to step in, with a judge eventually releasing a man who was attacked because the jail failed to protect him.
The October 19 altercation in cell 15 at the George R. Vierno Center, an 850-bed jail on Rikers in New York City, was caught on surveillance video and published by The New York Times.
Inmates crowd around a cell as Bacalao, a leader from the Dominican gang Trinitarios, orders different men to fight each other.
Other videos from the jail show inmates holding makeshift weapons and throwing things at a detainee hiding behind a corrections officer – just a sliver of the chaos that has gripped New York’s largest pre-trial jail as the COVID-19 pandemic worsens staffing shortages.
One of the men who was ordered to fight is a former member of the Crips gang identified in court records as Relator G.
He was released last month, with a judge commenting that the Department of Correction’s inability to control the jail ‘was tantamount to deliberate indifference.’
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Video from October 19 shows inmates waiting outside cell 15 at the George R. Vierno Center in Rikers Island
The inmates are watching a ‘fight night’ take place inside the empty cell
Nearby, a corrections officer appears to watch the commotion but doesn’t step in. One inmate who was hurt in the fight later said that a guard told the gang leader who ordered the fights to ‘calm it down’ or wait until later because ‘they are making it too obvious’
Rikers Island, home to most of New York City’s pre-trial detainees, has been plagued with staff shortages and lawlessness worsened by the pandemic
Judge April Newbauer said the conditions of confinement for the inmate, only identified as ‘Relator G,’ amounted to a clear violation of the constitutional right to due process as he was subjected to underground fights at the prison, which were allegedly ignored by a shrinking staff, according to the court documents.
Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi and former Mayor Bill de Blasio ‘utterly failed the public as well as this (detainee) by ignoring the looming threat of a crisis at Rikers Island, by delaying emergency measures as staff shortages increased, and by not adopting an ‘all hands on deck’ approach to this entirely foreseeable crisis,’ Newbauer wrote.
She added that the Department of Correction’s choice not to rebut the claims of abuse made by the inmate ‘spoke volumes’ to the conditions of the prison.
‘People marched for George Floyd – I think there needs to be a similar movement for the people on Rikers Island,’ said lawyer Eric M. Burse of New York County Defender Services, who represented Relator G.
‘Those people over there don’t have much of a voice. They are locked up. It is incumbent upon regular ordinary citizens to sound the alarm just like my client did.’
Videos of the ‘fight night’ and other altercations were obtained by New York County Defender Services as part of Relator G.’s petition to be let out.
Footage shows gang members hyping inmates up as they’re ordered to fight each other.
The fights appear to take place inside a closed, empty cell for the entertainment of a gang leader. Other inmates cheer from outside.
The men, some of whom even got along beforehand, are ordered to fight by the gang leader who runs the unit and orders guards around.
The winner got a cigarette, according to court records and interviews conducted by the Times.
Relator G., who did not want to be identified by his name for fear of reprisal from the gang that ran his unit at Rikers, was arrested in June on first-degree robbery charges and was awaiting trial at Rikers.
He was tapped to enter the fight by Bacalao. He said he fought with another inmate for two minutes before he hit his head on a metal toilet and bed frame and bruised his neck and back.
He said he recognized the man he was told to fight.
‘I felt stupid. This guy has nothing against me,’ Relator G. told the Times.
Eric M. Burse, a trial lawyer at New York County Defender Services, represented Relator G. in his claim to be released
Newbauer released Relator and blamed former Mayor Bill de Blasio, left, and Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi for allowing the prison to run under such conditions that it violated the inmates constitutional rights
The night of the ‘fight night,’ 1,467 uniformed staff were out sick and 31 officers didn’t show up. The unit in question would go unguarded twice a week, one former detainee said
His opponent was tired and refused to continued the fight. The next day, gang members ran into his cell and attacked him. He had to be removed from the unit.
Video from the fight night shows a female officer walking briskly by the area where inmates watched the fight.
A lawyer for the Correction Department lawyer, Benjamin Lee, said that no one was seriously injured in the fights and blamed Relator G. for not reporting them, according to the Times.
Lee argued against Relator’s release.
‘Believe it or not, sometimes in correctional facilities, there is bullying going on,’ Lee told the court. ‘It happens.’
That day, 1,467 uniformed staff were out sick and 31 officers didn’t show up, according to court records. The unit where the fight took place would go unguarded about twice a week, Relator G. recounted.
At least two officers were present during the fight. One just told the gang leader to ‘calm it down’ or wait until later because ‘they are making it too obvious,’ Relator G. testified.
His testimony was so compelling that Justice April Newbauer of Manhattan Supreme Court ordered him released.
Relator G. described the unit as being run by Bacalao, which means ‘salted codfish’ in Spanish. He is a member of the Dominican gang called the Trinitarios.
Video also showed detainees who were part of the ruling gang in the unit out past 9pm, when they’re supposed to be locked in their cells
This specific unit was run by Bacalao, a leader from the Domincan gang the Trinitarios
Bacalao allegedly determined when residents could use their phones and when they could go outside and even ordered guards around.
In his cell, which he called his ‘office,’ he had expensive sneakers in his cell from brands and designers like Yeezys, Jordans, Adidas and Balenciaga. He also had seven of the thin, jail-issued mattresses stacked on top of each other for comfort and eight bins full of food, spices, and clothing – way more than the one a regular inmate is allowed, the Times reports.
Relator G. said he was placed in Bacalao’s unit after he had to be moved from various other units when other inmates tried to attack him.
When Relator G. got to Bacalao’s cell, the gang leader explained the rules of ‘his house’ and gave him cigarettes and soup, saying, ‘Enjoy yourself.’
One day, Bacalao told correction officers who arrived to take detainees outside to come back another time, although some of them hadn’t been out for recreation in months.
‘He didn’t want to go out at the time,’ Relator G. recalled. ‘It was too early for him. He told the officers that.’
Other videos and photos show gang leaders in the unit out past 9pm, the time in which ‘locking in’ happens and inmates are supposed to go back to their cells.
‘One of them would scream out: “If you’re not Trini, go into your cell,”‘ Relator G. said.
Relator G. estimated that 30 of the 50 people in the unit weren’t in the gang, though he says he was approached and might have joined as a means of survival if he wasn’t released.
Relator G, who was released after a judge said the Department of Correction failed to protect him, was attacked in August (above)
He was between a small, female officer as other inmates tried to attack him
They threw metal sheet pans, and one was even armed with a sharp weapon (left)
Relator G., as he is referred to in court documents, and the officer were cornered close to the gate, which was then opened by a guard in the control room so they could escape
In one video dated August 10, inmates detainees smeared a surveillance camera with butter.
Relator G. said he saw some gang members put on their sneakers, which he recognized as a sign that someone was about to attack. He purposefully walked closer to the only officer on the floor.
Soon, three men lunged at him and chased him to a small area outside the housing unit, the Times reports.
A small, female officer stood between him and the other inmates – including one holding a sharp, metal object – as they tried to attack him by throwing metal food trays.
Eventually, an officer in the control room opened the gate and allowed Relator and the officer to escape to safety.