Estimated read time: 11-12 minutes
NEW YORK (AP) — Victor Woods shook uncontrollably, his body wracked by convulsions, as fellow inmates held him in their arms and shouted for help.
Amid the chaos inside a Rikers Island dormitory, surveillance video showed a lone figure of relative calm: a jail guard watching it all unfold as he sipped a cup of coffee.
"I'm not touching him," the guard was quoted by inmates as saying.
Within hours, Woods, a 53-year-old unemployed tunnel worker who had been arrested a week before on heroin possession charges, was dead. What exactly killed him remains under investigation, as are inmate claims that guards and medical workers took up to 20 minutes to start helping him.
He wasn't the first but rather the seventh inmate to die this year at Rikers, a sprawling complex of lockups built on an old waste dump near LaGuardia Airport, protected by barbed wire and a notoriously tight-lipped bureaucracy that has long kept word of wrongdoing from reaching the outside world.
But this year, startling disclosures of guard misconduct, inmate beatings and the gruesome deaths of inmate after inmate have slipped from behind Rikers' fences.
In March, The Associated Press began detailing dozens of deaths — from a homeless ex-Marine who essentially baked to death in a hot cell to a mentally ill man who sexually mutilated himself while locked up alone for seven days. In other cases, procedures meant to prevent suicides weren't followed. More deaths left doubts about the quality and timeliness of health care provided to prisoners.
City, state and federal authorities responded to those and other news reports with oversight hearings, investigations and a pledge of millions toward a massive overhaul.
Yet Woods died at the height of all of this scrutiny. The circumstances and scene on the video were recounted to the AP by three city officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't permitted to discuss the investigation.
The case underscores misgivings about appalling conditions inside the nation's second-largest jail system. It is also one more sign that the problems on Rikers Island — decades in the making — may take just as long to correct.
"There's no silver bullet for fixing Rikers," said Martin Horn, the commissioner of city jails from 2003 to 2009. "I always say running a jail is like growing a garden. If you turn your back on it, the weeds take over."
Mere miles from New York City's skyscrapers and trendy neighborhoods, Rikers Island sits by itself in the East River, a 10-jail facility where an average of 11,000 inmates a night — men, women and youth — are held on charges ranging from trespassing to murder. Despite its proximity to the city, since its inception in the 1930s, it has by design been out of sight and out of mind.
The institution has gained a measure of renown in pop culture, thanks to TV crime dramas such as "Law and Order" and as the real-life way-station for such notable inmates as rapper Lil Wayne, football star Plaxico Burress and international banker Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
Inside the "houses," as the jail dorms are called, inmates sleep side-by-side out in the open on metal beds with mattresses. Other, more restrictive units feature individual cells behind solid metal doors with fiberglass beds welded to the floor. The halls are filled with a pungent mix of odors from sewage backups, cigarette smoke and marijuana.
"Going there is probably one of the worst things that anyone can go through," said Marcell Neal, who was released from Rikers in October after spending 35 days there on a parole violation for failing to report an address change. He'd previously been convicted on gun possession and assault charges.
"It's a world on its own there. It's no longer living; it's more just an existence."
It is also a world where violence reigns and both guards and gangs rule — and change of any sort comes at a glacial pace, if at all.
Just this month, federal authorities probing guards' use of force against teenage inmates sued the city to institute reforms they said only a court order could bring. Rikers officials have been "deliberately indifferent" to the situation by failing to ensure incidents are properly reported and investigated, and neglecting to appoint enough supervisors or discipline staff for using excessive force, stated the lawsuit — one in a long line of cases demanding improvements.
In the past decade, thousands of complaints seeking damages for injuries sustained while locked up at Rikers have been settled, costing the city tens of millions of dollars. And since the early 1980s, six class-action lawsuits have been filed claiming system-wide brutality by guards against inmates, resulting in court orders to install surveillance cameras, improve internal investigations and rewrite use-of-force policies.
Use-of-force incidents have nevertheless increased, as have assaults on staff. Inmate stabbings and slashings also have more than doubled in the last four years alone, to 88 in fiscal 2014. The system, said jails commissioner Joseph Ponte, "just doesn't work to keep our staff and inmates safe."
In some ways things have tamed since, when working as a warden in 1988, Jim Garvey used tear gas and 200 guards to quell 550 rioting inmates protesting crowded conditions by blockading themselves with cell beds inside one of the island's facilities. Back then the inmate population was twice what it is today, overflowing with prisoners sent down from upstate — an issue finally resolved with lawsuits and the efforts of a watchdog agency.
"The secret to keeping places calm is walking and talking," said Garvey, who started as a correction officer in 1964 and retired 30 years later as a chief. As a supervisor, he would report for duty and quickly take care of administrative tasks so that he was free to wander his facility and check in with the guards and prisoners.
"Inmates," he said, "you got to talk to them."
These days a surging mentally ill population — the plight of jails and prisons nationwide — has further strained the system and complicated how guards, medical staff and inmates interact. Nearly 40 percent of Rikers inmates have a mental health diagnosis; a third are said to suffer from serious illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
The crisis of the mentally ill on Rikers came into focus this year after the AP reported the death of Jerome Murdough, a homeless former Marine on psychotropic medication who died of hyperthermia while locked inside a 101-degree cell for hours in February. Murdough, 56, had been arrested on a misdemeanor trespassing charge for sleeping in an enclosed stairwell of a Harlem public housing building on a cold night. He was unable to make $2,500 bail.
Five months before Murdough's death, in another case revealed by the AP, a mentally ill and diabetic inmate died after spending seven increasingly agitated days in an observation unit. Bradley Ballard, who was locked up alone without his medication after making a lewd gesture at a guard, flooded his cell and tied a rubber band around his genitals. He was finally found unresponsive, covered in feces.
A series of reports about other inmate deaths followed, spotlighting questionable medical care and suicides that might have been prevented but for missteps including the improper distribution of medication.
In Murdough's case, a jail guard accused of skipping her rounds was criminally charged this month with falsifying a logbook to make it look as though she'd checked on him. She pleaded not guilty. The city has already paid out $2.25 million to Murdough's family, taking the unusual move of settling a potential claim before a lawsuit was filed.
At the root of some of these cases is a tension between the two agencies charged with overseeing the inmate population. City health officials, who pay a private contractor to provide care inside Rikers, are responsible for physical and mental well-being, while correctional staff oversee control of inmates.
But the two sides view the population very differently: Health officials call Rikers residents "patients," and correction officers largely don't buy that so many inmates really are mentally ill, believing many fake it to avoid being punished. They call those prisoners "bing beaters," because health officials won't sign off on extended stints in solitary confinement —also known as "The Bing" — for seriously mentally ill inmates.
"You get inmates that can get one over on Sigmund Freud. They're that good," said Garvey. "You have officers, especially steady housing officers, who can kind of figure it out. So the 'bing beaters' get out of punitive segregation and the officer takes that personally, and that's where the problems lie."
Others point to recent turnovers in middle management that left less-qualified staff running the show at Rikers but also blame long-entrenched attitudes among the 9,000 officers who patrol the complex.
"For years the staff there was told the people in Rikers don't matter and that what they do doesn't matter," said Horn, the former jails commissioner. "How do you get that workforce to do its job?"
Norman Seabrook, head of the city's powerful correction officers' union, said he wants to be proactive in changing the culture at Rikers.
"We are professionals, and I expect nothing less from my members," he said.
But he's quick to remind critics that his officers are also "doing time" when they report for duty, responsible for policing what he's dubbed the most dangerous precinct in the city. To hammer the point home, every day a union official sends out an email to reporters, subject line: "Past 24 hours on Rikers Island." It runs down the number of inmate fights that day, along with how many guards were attacked with feces, urine or blood — and how many wound up in the emergency room.
A week and a half ago, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made his first visit to Rikers since taking office in January, to see firsthand the place consuming so much of his attention. In a dayroom outfitted with gated windows, he exchanged pleasantries with six teenage inmates sitting at a picnic table who had spent time in solitary for breaking jail rules — one, a 17-year-old, for 110 days. De Blasio later announced the practice would be ceased for young inmates.
At the urging of a jail supervisor, one boy told the mayor he was learning to employ self-control to avoid fights in a new alternative-to-solitary program dubbed Second-Chance Housing.
"That's a better way to live," the mayor replied, nodding.
Speaking later to reporters from inside a chapel on the island, de Blasio insisted progress was being made in the effort to reform Rikers. He noted the $32.5 million approved in the city's last budget for mental health services and more housing, and his pledge of spending $130 million more over four years to divert nonviolent people with behavioral disorders to treatment instead of jail.
He said Ponte had instituted other reforms: 90 percent of the city correction department's top management was replaced, more security cameras are set to be installed on Rikers and training at the agency's academy has been revised.
"We know the history. It's a very troubling history," de Blasio said, adding that the problems are the result of failed policies and leadership that are now "our moral responsibilities as humans" to resolve. "I can't emphasize enough what a tough mission this is, but also what a necessary mission this is."
One day later came the lawsuit by federal prosecutors seeking to speed up reforms and calling for a court order to bring about "real and lasting change to Rikers Island."
Officials continue weighing how to deal with other recent probes unrelated to excessive force or the deaths, including one report uncovering gaping security lapses that allowed an undercover officer posing as a guard to smuggle pot, heroin, booze and a razor blade into jail facilities.
Also ongoing is the investigation into the Oct. 1 death of Victor Woods.
A union sandhog who built tunnels in Boston, Woods was struggling to find work in New York. He also was battling drug addiction when he was arrested Sept. 24 in Harlem with more than 100 small glassines of heroin in his pockets. He was being held on $15,000 bail. Seabrook, the union official, said he wasn't familiar with the circumstances of Woods' death and couldn't comment.
Terri Scroggins, Woods' longtime girlfriend, spoke with him just once before his death. He was still at a police stationhouse, waiting to be bused to Rikers. He told her he was OK.
"He was in there just a week, just a week when he died," she said through tears in a telephone interview from her home in Boston. A jail chaplain called to give her the news, saying Woods apparently suffered a seizure.
Scroggins said Woods was on medication for high blood pressure. He also was going through heroin withdrawal and was being treated with a course of methadone, according to the city officials. He wasn't perfect, she said, but he was like a father to her three sons, taking them to car and boat shows and to church when they first started dating more than 20 years ago.
"He was just a man that had some struggles in life, but he was a good person," she said. "He was human."
Days after his death, Scroggins, along with Woods' mother, took a city bus to Rikers, traveling over the bridge that connects it to Queens to collect his wallet and clothes.
Scroggins remembers thinking the place "looked old and abandoned," and worried a plane might miss the runway and hit the island instead.
"The jail itself, it's just sad," she said. "It's nasty, it's old, it looks like you would get sick from being there, just being there."