14 MARCH 1994
The incident began at about 8 P.M. as a fight between inmates in the gymnasium of the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, the same unit that was the scene of a 1990 disturbance in which more than 100 inmates and guards were hurt. Officers said that when they tried to intervene in last night's disturbance, inmates attacked them with weight-lifting equipment.
One of the officers who was attacked set off an alarm, said Antenen, a spokesman for the New York City Department of Correction, and as more officers arrived the melee widened. All told, he said, 13 officers were injured and taken to local hospitals, including one who was struck in the head with a weight and was listed in critical condition. One inmate was also seriously hurt.
"It was a free-for-all," said Morales, a correction officer who was part of the first team to respond to the alarm, "It was 20 against 7 or 8 correction officers. They were throwing barbells and bench press benches when we came in, they started coming at us, running toward us. We were scared, fearful for our lives. We were fearful about being able to walk out of there."
All-Out Fighting It took five to eight minutes of all-out fighting to get the inmates under control, he said.
The City Correction Commissioner, Abate, said, "It took a total of 35 officers to end the melee."
Leaders of the unions representing correction officers said the incident raised serious questions about security precautions at the complex. The 77 inmates in the gymnasium were among those housed in the Bantum Center annex , who are considered higher-risk than the inmates in the main jail dormitories, but they were guarded by just four officers, said Meringolo, president of the Correction Captains Association. Israel, president of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, also asserted that only four officers were present.
Correction officials said they could not immediately respond to the unions' criticism.
But Abdallah, one of the officers in the gymnasium when the fighting broke out, insisted that eight officers were there. In any case, Officer Abdalllah, who suffered a sprained wrist, said the officers were overwhelmed. "They were throwing weights and stomping officers," he said. "They were beating officers, trying to take their sticks."
Struck With 50-Pound Disk
One officer, identified by his colleagues as Gonzales, was struck in the head with a 50-pound iron disk of the kind that are slipped on barbells for weight lifting. His condition was critical, said Kuhr, deputy chief of the Emergency Medical Service.
Commissioner Abate received word of the incident while at a symposium at John Jay College in Manhattan, and rushed to the jail. She later went to the New York Hospital Medical Center where Officer Gonzales was taken. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani also paid a brief visit to the hospital.
E.M.S. technicians took three inmates to Elmhurst Hospital, including "one who has what we consider a serious head injury," said Mackey, a spokeswoman for the agency. That inmate was listed in serious condition. Another 10, most with bruises and cuts, were treated at the jail, she said.
The agency sent 30 ambulances and 10 supervisors - a total of 70 people - to the jail after receiving word of the melee at 8:17 P.M., said Leonard, a spokesman.
But Mr. Meringolo charged that a basic security precaution, the locking down of other units in the jail after the unrest began, did not occur until two hours later. That lapse, he said, allowed another smaller disturbance to break out in another part of the Bantum Center. He also asserted that one of the inmates involved in the violence in the gymnasium was found to have a weapon last week, and should not have been allowed in the gymnasium.
Mr. Meringolo also said that in the early stages of the disturbance, communication among correction officers was hampered because officers in the unit where the gymnasium is could not find the correct telephone number or pager number for the officer of the day, who he said could have coordinated a better response.
Officer Tucker, who was in the gymnasium said the first response team did not arrive until seven or eight minutes after the alarm was sounded, and the second until 25 minutes after the alarm.
The 1990 uprising at the jail took place during a labor protest by correction officers, who had blocked the bridge that provided the only access to the island and left jail staffing dangerously low.
Rikers Island is a very tough prison and this occurred at a tense time. This is just prior to the airing of the HBO film "Lock Up" featuring the prison. While searching for the above news clipping I came across two more incidents that occurred rapidly after the one featured on this page. They are listed below.
"22 Officers and Inmates Injured in a New Melee on Rikers Island" New York Times. April 10, 1994. Section 1 page 43.
ABSTRACT: In the second serious disturbance at Rikers Island in less than a month, inmates at the jail complex tried to block correction officers from subduing an unruly inmate in a corridor on Apr. 9, 1994, city officials said. A spokesman for the City's Department of Correction said that nine officers and 13 inmates were injured, none seriously, in the fighting, which lasted lass than ten minutes.
"Officer is Injured in Fight at Rikers" New York Times. April 14, 1994. Section B page 3.
ABSTRACT: The New York City Department of Correction said that a guard at Rikers Island was hospitalized on April 13, 1994 after correction officers were attacked by inmates. It was the third time in a month that inmates assaulted guards at the prison.
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