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Rikers Island Guards File Suit Alleging Cancer-Causing Toxin Exposure

The Rikers Island jail in New York City was built atop a toxic landfill that is causing cancer, according to lawsuits filed by seven cancer-stricken Rikers employees.

“That island is toxic and it’s killing people,” said guard Vanessa Parks, 49, who was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 2009. “I’ve spent 20 years being exposed to what’s in the ground and the air there. My life won’t ever be the same.”

Guard Jacqueline Bede, 51, who was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2009, agreed. “That place has killed so many of my brothers and sisters,” she stated. “Every few months, someone got sick.”

Rikers Island employees described a strong chemical odor that often permeates the facility, causing nausea. Plumes of methane gas thick enough to set off gas detectors on the island also rise from the ground.

Ingrid Mitchell, the widow of Rikers guard Anthony Mitchell who died of bladder cancer in 2008, claims the jail killed him. “His doctors told him his cancer was caused by inhaling carcinogens” during his 20-year career, said Mitchell. “Rikers did that to him.”

Robert Barley, a cook at Rikers, blamed the jail for his thyroid cancer, while plumber John Paccione said the jail was responsible for his brain tumor, according to court filings.

Six cancer-stricken employees and Mitchell filed suit against the City of New York in Bronx Supreme Court, claiming that jail officials knew staff members were being exposed to dangerous toxins but did nothing to protect them. The plaintiffs noted that there are more victims who have not yet decided whether to sue.

The city denied the claims. “There is no support for these allegations,” said Ken Becker, the city’s attorney who is defending against the lawsuits.

Not surprisingly, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Seth Harris, disagreed. “Their investigation was a joke,” said Harris, referring to a 2009 Health Department report that found “no evidence that suggests a cancer cluster exists” at Rikers.

However, researchers failed to determine how many jail employees had cancer, according to the report. Additionally, only cancer rates in neighborhoods near Rikers Island were examined rather than on the island itself. Harris noted that two-thirds of the land at Rikers is made up of landfill, but the city has never disclosed its contents. “We need an honest accounting of what that waste is doing to people’s bodies,” he said.

Of course, nobody appears to be talking about cancer rates among prisoners held at Rikers Island. The lawsuits filed on behalf of the Rikers employees were removed to federal court and consolidated; they remain pending. See: Barley v. City of New York, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:11-cv-01300-RJH.

Sources: New York Daily News,

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Related legal case

Barley v. City of New York