Rikers Island: ‘Den of Horror’ for Latino Youths

Frank Casco allied with Dominican gang Patria in order to get protected from beatings by both inmates and prison guards. (Photo by Humberto Arellano via El Diario)

Frank Casco allied with Dominican gang Patria in order to get protected from beatings by both inmates and prison guards. (Photo by Humberto Arellano via El Diario)

Frank Casco’s first night at “La Roca” – Spanish for “The Rock,” a widespread nickname for Rikers Island – was enough to let him know the difference between fear and horror.

It was 2008 and the Salvadoran-born man raised in Far Rockaway was 18. The first night he spent on the Island, his cellmate was a skinny, black 16-year-old. The teenager looked nervous and got up from his bunk bed several times throughout the night.

An impatient prison guard ordered him to stand in a corner where there was a blind spot from the cameras. “Without explanation, the guard knocked the young man out with one blow,” remembers Casco, who is now 24. “At that moment, I knew that I was in hell.”

That is also the moment when he was able to see firsthand what New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer means when he denounces the “culture of violence” prevailing at Rikers Island. The penitentiary is the second largest in the country, with a population of 12,300 inmates.

Casco is a Queens-based mechanic whose family left El Salvador in the late 1980s, when Casco was 17. He was arrested for vandalism and writing graffiti, and spent eight months in the Bronx’s Horizon Juvenile Center. He was released on probation on condition that he stay out of trouble for at least one year.

He did not heed the warning. Upon returning to Far Rockaway High School, Casco was suspended again and security guards made a report that threatened to qualify him as a probation violator.

Casco says that he begged the officers not to report the incident, and at one point grabbed the officer’s notebook. “He became aggressive and pushed me. Without thinking, I replied with the same action, and he punched me hard on the mouth,” says Casco showing the scar on his upper lip. “The fight was enough to send me to Rikers until they could locate the security footage that would reveal that he started the fight.”

Gang offer protection

Casco says that once at La Roca, his alliance with Dominican gang Patria — with whom he had grown up in Queens and whom he considers his brothers — saved him from beatings by guards and fellow inmates alike.

“My protection was ordered from the street. At La Roca, a Latino alone is a dead Latino,” says the young man, who has acquired a Dominican accent.

Sitting in the kitchen of the modest public housing apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Casco recounts how drugs and pornography are just as valuable as food inside the infamous penitentiary.

The best rations, says Casco, are taken by the so-called “prison owners,” the men who have been there the longest.

“Bars do not thwart inmates who have power,” he says. “Women bring in the drugs, and give it to their men during their visits. Rikers is not impenetrable.”

Apparently, “prison owners” also buy off guards for benefits such as using the phone for a whole hour.

Casco says that he ended up spending more than a year in prison because his court hearings were postponed at least five times.

“If you are supposed to get out and a guard doesn’t like you, he will find a way to get you in trouble so that you have to stay longer. High-ranking officers look the other way.”

After he was declared innocent and released, Casco finished high school and studied auto mechanics. His short-term goal is to enroll in college.

“There is a before- and an after-Rikers,” he says. “The horror of that place changes you whether you want it to or not.”

Number of lawsuits increases

Comptroller Scott Stringer said that personal injury lawsuits filed by inmates throughout New York city prisons have soared in the last few years.

The Department of Correction currently faces 2,245 legal claims for physical injuries, 37 percent more than in 2013 and 114 percent more than in 2009.

The surge has been more evident in specific units inside Rikers Island such as the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, where claims rose 174 percent in the last five years.

“The culture of violence detailed in recent reports on Rikers Island has made it clear that we are potentially facing a humanitarian crisis in our city’s largest jail,” said Stringer in a press release. “Reducing violence in our jails is critically important (…) for taxpayers who are on the hook for millions of dollars in settlements and judgments every year.”

In the last five years, there was a 34 percent increase in indemnities, including $8.5 million in the 2011 fiscal year. The comptroller’s office predicts that the next few years will show similar expenses.

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