“Everything died with him.”
By Jaquelyn Johnson
The Bronx Journal Staff Writer
Born June 1, 1990, eighteen-year-old Christopher Robinson was the last person anyone expected to end up murdered while awaiting his release from Rikers Island. He was beaten to death in his cell two weeks before his release in 2008, in what would become known as “the program.”
According to prosecutors in the Bronx County District Attorney’s Office, the program was a “secret society run by correctional officers at Rikers Island to extort and beat other inmates.” Robinson died, the victim of overzealous correctional officers and bloodthirsty inmates.
Christopher was born to 16-year-old Charnel Robinson and grew up in a pretty tough neighborhood known as East New York. He was raised by his hard-working mother, grandfather and three uncles, who were the predominant male role models in his life, due to the absence of his incarcerated father.
From a very young age Robinson was extremely attached to his mother, clutching her leg, as she would travel to school each and every day, determined to finish high school and not end up as a dropout statistic.
Robinson was an athlete growing up and played for the Police Athletic flag football team. He later attended Franklin K. Lane High School, where he excelled in math. He told his mother, “If my good looks don’t make me an entertainer, I will fall back on accounting.” According to Charnel Robinson, every award that he received was related to math.
While in high school, Robinson maintained his friendships with a small group of teenagers who had been friends with him since kindergarten, the “brothers he never had,” according to his mother.
Many would describe Robinson as having a tough exterior however, to those who knew him, he was “just like cotton,” said Charnel. He loved everyone and was very family oriented. He would often show the same affection for his mother’s friends as he would for her. Even through his older years, he would still climb into bed with his mother because he still “needed her” and “loved her.”
Like many children of young mothers, Christopher grew up in a single-parent home. His father was unavailable, until he was released from prison when Robinson was 15. At that point, Robinson believed his father would attempt to have a relationship with him, to make up for lost time. However, Robinson was greatly disappointed when his father decided to move upstate with a woman he had been seeing while incarcerated.
His mother described Robinson as devastated by the fact that his father had not wanted to try to build a relationship with him. Robinson, for the first time, began to rebel. He acted out, making some bad decisions. Decisions, which included stealing phones from a store.
Caught, he was arrested, charged with robbery and ended up on probation. His mother told him to straighten up. When his probation officers came to check in on Robinson, they urged his mother to motivate him to get a job and do something with his life.
Charnel Robinson took the opportunity to get her son on the right track by applying to jobs for him, sending in his resume for retail positions. The manager of a Staples in Brooklyn was aware of Robinson’s prior arrest and decided to give him a chance. Staples was Robinson’s first job and he was very excited to start.
About a month after starting work, Robinson was arrested for violating probation by staying too late at work one night. Although Robinson fought for the arresting officers to check with his manager, they refused, and he was processed and booked immediately.
While his lawyers attempted to get the charges dropped, Robinson remained at Rikers Island Detention Facility. He had to wait until lawyers were able to verify that he was at work the night of the arrest, and to process all of his paperwork. After confirmation, Robinson was set to be released from Rikers on November 13, 2008.
However, two weeks before, Robinson told his mother on the phone that he felt something bad was going to happen. His mother begged him to tell her what was wrong, but he refused and reassured her that everything would be all right.
On the Saturday before his death, Charnel Robinson was visiting with close family when suddenly there was a banging on the door. Two uniformed Department of Corrections officers were at her front door with a nun. They explained that her son “had an asthma attack and was unresponsive.”
The mention of an asthma attack perplexed Charnel. She didn’t believe that this Christopher Robinson was her son, who had never in his life had an asthma attack. It had to be another inmate with the same name.
After two days passed, Charnel’s family begged her to go to the prison to see what had happened with her son. Upon her arrival, the guards at the first prison checkpoint said over their walkie talkie’s “The family of the kid that got killed is here,” a statement that would resonate with Charnel until this day.
Charnel was not allowed to see her son until the following Monday, when she confirmed that the deceased person was, in fact, her 18-year-old son Christopher Robinson. He was completely beaten up, with bruises on his face and body.
In January 2009, the indictment of the correctional officers and inmates was part of a larger investigation into what would become known as “The Program” at Rikers Island. This was when Charnel discovered what really had happened, that inmates on the same block as son had beaten him.
It wasn’t until four years later, in 2012, that the inmates and the corrections officers involved were handed down light sentences, which Charnel describes as “unjust” compared to the value of her son’s life. Three corrections officers received sentences ranging from 1-2 years, for their role in his death.
“Everything died with him. Being a grandmother and seeing my son get married, they took that away from me,” she said.