RIKERS ISLAND — An attack on a correction department captain and other officers on Thanksgiving Day by inmates here resulted in 16 indictments against the inmates on Thursday. However, people whose job it is to watch over Rikers prisoners said that's not a strong enough action to prevent more attacks.
The indictments were in response to the November 23rd attack that was recorded in its graphic entirety on surveillance video. The images clearly show a group of Rikers Island inmates surround Capt. Awais Ghauri in a cellblock in the Otis Bantum Correctional Center on the island. One of the inmates suddenly starts punching Ghauri, hard, multiple times.
That inmate, said prosecutors, is Jason Reid, 33. They said he's a known leader of a group of gang members at Rikers, and that the attack -- in which two other inmates joined in Capt. Ghauri's beatdown -- was a retaliation against Ghauri, which Reed had organized.
"This is how they feel like they're emboldened," said Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark at a news conference Thursday morning. "We're making it clear," she continued. "They don't run the jail. They don't run the jail. That's why they were in court being arraigned."
She'd called the news conference to formally announce charges against Reid and 15 other inmates for planning and carrying out the attack. The charges include multiple counts of robbery, attempted gang assault, assault, riot, and more than a half dozen other charges, which are intended to send a message.
"It's about the safety of the people that have to be [at Rikers]," Clark said, "whether they're inmates, whether they're officers, whether they're D.O.C staff. That really should be the priority here."
A photo taken of Capt. Ghauri right after the attack shows slashes and bruises to his face and neck, from which he is still recovering, according to the Department of Corrections.
Ghauri had used his DOC-issued pepper spray canister to break up an incident at the jail earlier in November, according to the district attorney. She said that the Thanksgiving attack was in retaliation for that, and was carefully orchestrated by Reid.
A surveillance camera image showed him leading a meeting of the group of inmates about 90 minutes before the attack. During it, the prosecutor said, some inmates blocked two other officers on scene from assisting Captain Ghauri, and other inmates stole one officer's pepper spray canister.
It wasn't until another officer -- a woman who neither the prosecutor nor the DOC would name -- fought off some of the inmates, that she was able to provide Captain Ghauri with assistance.
Fifteen of the sixteen indicted inmates have now gone before a judge on the new charges, which could result in them being in state prison for 25 years if they're found guilty. One other inmate was charged with criminal possession of stolen property, and has been arraigned on that charge. In the meantime, however, people whose job it is to watch over inmates -- leaders and members of the correction captains'- and correction officers' unions -- say that the indictments are not enough.
The leaders of the Correction Officers' Benevolence Association, or COBA, and Correction Captains' Association, or CCA, said the city needs to reinstate the use of solitary confinement units for Rikers' worst offenders. The center where those isolation units was concentrated was called the Central Punitive Segregation Unit, or CPSU. It's no longer used as a form of punishment for inmates, much to the chagrin of officers and supervisors.
"The gangs, they put them together [in jail], and this is what they do," said Capt. William Inman, first vice president of CCA, in an interview.
District Attorney Clark, at the news conference, mentioned that one of the indicted inmates, at his first appearance before a judge on the new charges, turned to a group of corrections officers in attendance in court and said, “This is just starting," before being led out and back to a bus headed to Rikers.
It's for that reason -- that the indicted inmates can eventually rejoin the general population of the jail facility -- that COBA and CCA are calling for a reinstatement of long-term solitary confinement as punishment.
"Most inmates serve their time" and leave, said Capt. Inman. However, the "two or three percent" of inmates who he called a direct danger to corrections professionals "are animals" who can only be deterred with the prospect of having to spend 23 straight hours a day in the CPSU.
"Give us back what we need to do our job, Mayor De Blasio," Capt. Inman said.
For Mayor Bill De Blasio's part, his office issued a statement. “We’re proud of our successful reforms in this area – reducing solitary by over 85 percent and ending it for everyone under 22 – and we have no plans to move backwards. It’s clear that more solitary doesn’t translate to less violence, and can hurt people instead of helping them.”
Peter Thorne, the deputy commissioner for public information at the Department of Corrections, elaborated on the mayor’s statement.
“Any assault on our officers is completely unacceptable,” Thorne said in a statement. “As proven today, any inmate who attacks our uniformed staff will face consequences. We continue to use punitive segregation, but not as a one-size-fits-all solution. Today, it is used when necessary – for inmates who commit violent acts, including those who took part in the cowardly attack on Capt. Ghauri."
Punitive segregation, while it no longer occurs in a CPSU, does take place for periods lasting up to 60 days, depending on the severity of an offense, according to Corrections Department sources.