When things are tense in the young adult housing areas at the Robert N. Davoren Complex jail on Rikers Island, sneakers are on.

There are times, the 18- to 21-year-olds housed there believe, they must be ready to fight or run. 

But lately they’ve been wearing slippers, noted one young man who was recently released. 

“It’s more comfortable,” the 20-year-old from Brownsville told THE CITY. Life behind bars is better, he said, “when we all get together.”

Statistics suggest the facility, long one of the city Department of Correction’s most violent, is the center of a dramatic turnaround led by Warden Joe Caputo, who took charge in May 2019.   

But some correction officers under him and their union aren’t so enamored by his approach, which includes a mentorship program manned by older inmates.

Incidents of force used by correction officers against inmates fell 30% between July 1, 2019, and June 30, 2020, according to the recently released latest federal monitoring report on city jails. 

The Davoren Complex also saw a 56.4% drop in assaults on staff involving serious injuries and a 28.2% reduction in inmate fights during the same period. 

The decrease in violence in the young-adult section comes during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has reduced the population but also deprived remaining city inmates of visits from loved ones since March.

Programming for young people has also dried up, with sessions on topics like literacy, creative arts and conflict resolution canceled in favor of “self-guided materials.”

It also comes at a time when, according to the federal monitor, violence throughout the city jails system has spiked to record highs

Caputo, 40, has taken a novel-for-Rikers approach to the 741 detainees in his facility. He spends time talking to the young people incarcerated there and even plays basketball with them. 

“He walks by here often,” Prakash Churaman, 21, told THE CITY during a phone interview from Rikers Island. “He believes in programs. It’s rare to see a warden talk to an inmate. He’s willing to listen to what we have to say.”

‘Life’s Not Over’

As part of his effort to curb violence, Caputo enlisted a trio of older detainees who have been preaching peace to the young adults, serving as mentors.

Speaking from jail, mentor Steven Pomie told THE CITY that he aims to steer the young men at the Davoren Complex away from violence, both in jail and back home.

“There’s no elders to explain to them that you’re not at war,” he said. “And this what we’re trying to invent, a realm of unity.”

Pomie, 38, from Brooklyn, hopes to foster behind bars the kind of intergenerational connections that he said are often missing on the street. 

“If I live in a building on 95th Street and my friend James lives in a building on 95th Street and we grew up together and we both got locked up and our sons are out there, they don’t have to know each other,” he said. “But if we was there, we could’ve told our sons, you know, ‘We’re friends, don’t fight, you’re friends, don’t fight.’ And you know these kids have no elders to tell us none of that.”

“You don’t want your kid to be the next kid in the street getting killed,” he added. 

Pomie is awaiting trial on felony charges of compelling prostitution and related trafficking charges, which he denies. 

The Robert N. Davoren Center on Rikers Island houses men 18 to 21 years old. Credit: Courtesy of the Department of Correction

Pomie and fellow older inmates Michael Ross and James Quadon were a calming influence on the often despondent younger men, according to the recently released 20-year-old, whose name THE CITY is withholding.

“They tell people, ‘That’s not the way, like, we not on negative timing, we on positive timing, you feel me? We not on that negative s—t, y’all chill out,’” he said. “Off the respect that we got for them, we gonna chill out.”

Pomie, also known as P-Gutta, helped smooth tensions between him and another young inmate to the point where the two young men recorded a song together, he said.

“We’re not home, we angry, so our mindset is negative — we’re locked up, so we’re negative all day, because we’re in jail,” he said. “But P-Gutta, he come give us a talk and try to enlighten the day, you feel me? Life is not over, life’s not over right here.”

Rankling the Rank and File

The mentorship program and Caputo’s leadership style have come under attack from the union representing city jail officers. 

The Correction Officers Benevolent Association says members are furious Caputo chose Pomie, noting he faces charges of assault on a correction officer who alleges he shut a housing area door on her, striking her right forearm and shoulder. 

She suffered two fractures to her right forearm, along with numbness, bruising and “substantial pain,” according to court documents. Pomie denies the charges.

The selection of Pomie as a mentor is a “textbook example of the management failures in our department,” said COBA President Benny Boscio Jr. 

“Instead of putting gang members, who are directly responsible for the soaring jail violence in our facilities, on soapboxes, the department should immediately break up the gangs,” he added. 

After Caputo circulated a memo about the mentor program in October and the correction officers’ union expressed outrage, the Department of Correction told the Daily News that the memo, which would have allowed the mentors to enter young adult housing areas to speak with people, was rescinded. 

“My only thing is, you know, the people that is making it seem like it’s a bad thing, what is your alternative?” Pomie said. “If there’s no alternative, what are you proposing, go back to violence?”

Caputo has also slowly begun to mingle inmates who are members of rival factions during recreational activities, a high-stakes change, according to people in the facility.

‘He has the reputation of being arguably the most effective warden.’

The Correction Department has long kept alleged members of different gangs apart to prevent fights, internal records show. 

“It’s the path of least resistance,” said Joe Russo, president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens / Deputy Wardens Association, of the practice. 

But, he added, that setup “emboldens inmates” and creates small fiefdoms that try to rule the jails and ignore officer orders. 

Through his union, Caputo, declined to talk to THE CITY, citing the department’s strict media policy.  

The tradition of housing people by gang in jail — which city officials have long denied — further entrenches gang affiliation, and contributes to more violence when people are released, people familiar with the system say.

“He has the reputation of being arguably the most effective warden,” said Russo, whose union represents Caputo. The Davoren Complex “was a disaster before he got there.”

Caputo was born and raised on Staten Island and his father, Vincent Caputo, is a retired assistant deputy warden who headed the department’s vaunted Emergency Services Unit. 

Jail’s Troubling History

The Davoren Complex is haunted by a history of violence and death. 

In 2008, Bloods gang members killed 18-year-old Christopher Robinson because he refused to comply with their orders, court records show. 

An investigation into his death revealed that the gang members had been deputized by jail staff to keep the other detainees under control via a system called “The Program.” 

On Monday, a 19-year-old inmate filed a federal lawsuit alleging that a similar scheme, called “The World Tour,” is still going on at the facility and others run by the Correction Department, according to the Daily News.

Detainee Jomonni Morris alleges he was retaliated against after a dispute with a correction officer at the Davoren Complex in 2018. In April, he was moved to another facility where he was slashed in the face by a fellow inmate, the suit says. 

During the de Blasio administration, many of the younger detainees, who frequently fight the most, records show, were moved to other facilities, including the Brooklyn House of Detention. 

But they’ve been slowly moved back since the Brooklyn lockup closed earlier this year as part of the city’s plan to shut down Rikers Island and replace it with four new facilities in every borough except Staten Island.