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Death and Inhumane Living Conditions Persist in Nation’s Worst Jail

by Kevin W. Bliss

Crisis conditions continue at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex, where 13 deaths have been recorded through the first eight months of 2022. Given a population of some 5,700 prisoners and detainees at the jail, that’s a death rate over twice as a high as that reported in Alabama prisons, widely considered among the worst in the country. [See: PLN, Oct. 2022, p.22.]

The city’s Department of Correction (DOC) said it suspended three guards after the most recent death on August 30, 2022, though the only name released was the dead man’s: Michael Nieves. The 40-year-old, who was locked up in April 2019 on a burglary charge, cut his own throat with a razor in front of the three guards, who not only failed to frisk him and find the blade, but then allegedly did nothing for ten minutes while he bled out.

On July 25, 2022, four other guards were indicted for failing to protect Nicholas Feliciano, 18, a suicidal detainee who spent nearly eight minutes trying to hang himself in 2019 while they allegedly stood by and watched. Two of the guards, Mark Wilson, 46, and Daniel Fullerton, 27, resigned in February 2022. Another, Kenneth Hood, 35, was suspended, and the last, Cpt. Terry Henry, 37, was placed on modified duty. All four pleaded not guilty. Feliciano remains hospitalized with brain damage.

Since then, two other guards have been convicted of taking bribes to smuggle contraband to prisoners: One, Krystle Burrell, 35, pleaded guilty to taking $9,780 in bribes on September 20, 2022, just over a month after the other, Katrina Patterson, 31, admitted taking bribes totaling $34,090 on August 15, 2022.

Guards are at the top of the list of the jail’s problems, with so many continuing not to show up for work that the jail is too short-staffed to escort prisoners to health care or provide adequate programming or even to prevent prisoner-on-prisoner violence. [See: PLN, Feb. 2022, p.1.] Call-outs spiked at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but as recently as June 28, 2022, DOC spokesperson Patrick Rocchio reported 868 guards — almost 12% of the jail’s 7,525 total — were out sick. That was, however, the lowest number since November 2020, he added.

As a result, the jail relies on lockdowns and solitary confinement to keep order. In 2021, the city’s jail oversight agency, the Board of Correction (BOC), promulgated a series of new rules governing the use of segregation and solitary confinement in response to a rising death toll and incidents of gang-related violence at the jail complex. The City adopted most of the recommendations in the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement (HALT) Act that lawmakers passed that year. Yet the new procedures have still not been implemented due to staffing shortages.

The tenth detainee to die this year, Elijah Muhammad, overdosed shortly after release from an isolation cell where he had spent 32 hours — over five times the six-hour limit for so-called “de-escalation” cells, according to DOC rules. He had also reportedly spent over six hours locked in a “decontamination shower” after getting into an altercation with a guard not long after arriving at the jail on June 8, 2022. After the 31-year-old died on July 10, 2022, his corpse allegedly lay in his cell for hours before it was discovered by guards, resulting in several suspensions and the firing of one guard, who was new to the force.

“I’m not a supporter of solitary confinement,” insisted DOC Commissioner Louis Molina on April 7, 2022, “and [DOC] really has not had solitary confinement in its traditional sense.”

However, the Commissioner allowed that “any jail or prison needs restrictive housing, to address individuals who commit violent acts.”

Under the HALT ACT, a new risk management assessment system (RMAS) is supposed to incorporate positive reinforcement and therapeutic programming for punishment and rehabilitation of prisoners and detainees accused of violent infractions or possession of contraband. The law’s provisions include legal representation for those accused of rule infractions, daily mental health evaluations, seven hours out-of-cell time per day, and assignment of a case manager, as well as daily access to the law library, education, recreation, phones, and social activities. It also limits segregation to a maximum of 15 consecutive days and no more than 20 days in any 60-day period.

But none of that happens without sufficient guard staffing, and Benny Boscio, the head of the guard’s union, the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, said that city jail guards can’t come to work because they’re being assaulted there — 1,500 times in the past year.

“No other city workforce … is being assaulted at the alarming rate that we are,” Boscio said.

Mayor Sides with Guards,
Whose Absenteeism Cost City
$200,000 in Legal Payouts

Fear of assault didn’t deter “hundreds of on-duty staff in uniform” from showing up for an extravagant retirement party for Chief Ada Pressley on July 11, 2022. As reported by the New York Daily News, uniformed on-duty staff also set up and broke down the event, which was held under tents in the jail parking lot.

On January 26, 2022, during the same month that the jail complex was so short-staffed it counted 6,792 missed medical appointments for detainees, Pressley provided an affidavit in a case brought by the Legal Aid Society over the problem, admitting “this rate of production does not constitute substantial compliance with the pertinent directives to provide timely access to the clinics.”

Another 8,402 appointments were missed in February 2022, despite an order issued by Bronx Supreme Court Judge Elizabeth Taylor on December 3, 2021, directing DOC “to immediately comply with its duties to … Provide Petitioners with access to sick call.” See: Matter of Agnew v. N.Y.C. Dep’t of Corr., 2021 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 6134 (Sup. Ct.).

On May 13, 2022, the judge found the agency in contempt and set a deadline for compliance with the earlier order by June 24, 2022, under threat of a fine. Finding it still out of compliance on August 9, 2022, the judge ordered DOC to pay $100 to each detainee for every medical appointment missed since December 11, 2021 — a total over $200,000 and climbing. See: Agnew v. N.Y.C. Dep’t of Corr., N.Y. Sup. Ct. (Cty. of Bronx), Case No. 813431-2021.

Meanwhile, RMAS, the centerpiece of the HALT Act, has been delayed from its original November 2021 implementation date, first to July 1, 2022, and now to a date to be determined, after the July target was scrapped over objections raised by the federal monitor in a long-running class-action lawsuit over conditions at Rikers Island.

“The jails remain dangerous and unsafe, and the conditions are volatile,” read the report filed by the monitor, Steven J. Martin, on June 30, 2022. He strongly recommended that the city delay implementation of RMAS until sometime after it first implements the Action Plan outlined in the class-action. Judge Laura Taylor Swain, of the federal court for the Southern District of New York, has given the city until November 17, 2022, to show progress on that plan or else she has promised to place the entire Rikers Island complex under federal receivership. See: Nunez v. N.Y.C. Dep’t. of Corr., USDC (S.D.N.Y.), Case No. 1:11-cv-5845.

But come that deadline, the judge will be bound to determine there is no lesser alternative available and that the city has been acting in bad faith by not complying with court orders. “It’s important for the judge to show that she has tried everything and everything that she has tried has come up short,” said counsel for the Justice Program of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, Hernandez Stroud. “[Receivership] is reserved for when the court reaches the end of the road with nowhere to turn.”

Since RMAS was first put on hold in November 2021, a new executive order delaying its implementation due to chronic short-staffing has been signed every five days, first by former Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) and now by his successor, Mayor Eric Adams (D).

Legal Aid Society’s Kayla Simpson, one of the attorneys representing plaintiffs in the Agnew class-action, accused Adams’ administration of misusing emergency executive authority to “[decide] what rules to follow and when, in defiance of oversight structures like [BOC].”

Boscio’s union also filed a court challenge to stop RMAS, but that case was dismissed on June 16, 2022, a decision affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on July 27, 2022. See: N.Y. State Corr. Officers & Police Benevolent Ass’n v. Hochul, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107145 (N.D.N.Y.); and 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 20832 (2d Cir.).

Yet even though his opposition to implementing RMAS aligns with the position staked out by Martin, the federal monitor in the Nunez class-action, Boscio is no fan of placing Rikers Island under federal receivership.

“Just because a receiver comes in, it’s not like he or she are [sic] going to wave a magic wand and all of our problems will go away,” he said.

Meanwhile Boscio and other guards got a shout-out from the mayor during a tour of Rikers Island on June 22, 2022. “I am not ashamed of you,” Adams told the guards. “I am proud of you. Keep doing the job you are doing.”

Except that doesn’t keep more detainees from dying. In addition to Nieves and Muhammad, the other 11 deaths recorded at the jail in the first eight months of this year include:

Ricardo Cruciani, 68, who was found dead with a wet sheet around his neck at 5:35 a.m. on August 15, 2022, in a shower he had entered 48 minutes earlier; the neurologist arrived at Rikers Island after he was convicted of sexually assaulting patients on July 29, 2022, but he was not placed on suicide watch as requested by his attorney, Frederick Sosinsky.

Michael Lopez, 34, a schizophrenic and drug addict, died in an observation cell on July 15, 2022; he had been at the jail since May 18, 2022, on $2,500 bail for a string of burglaries at a Manhattan Target and Duane Reade, but his mother said he never received any of his prescription medications and likely overdosed on illicit substances trying to self-medicate.

Albert Drye, 52, died on June 21, 2022, after transport from the jail to Bellevue Hospital; no cause of death has been released.

Anibal Carrasquillo, 39, was found dead in his cell of a suspected drug overdose on June 20, 2022; he had been held since September 27, 2019 — 631 days — on $50,000 bail for robbery, drug possession and assault charges.

Antonio Bradley, 28, died on June 18, 2022, three days after he was granted compassionate release from the jail to the Bronx’s Lincoln Hospital; during a stop at Bronx criminal court, he hanged himself with a sweater in the bathroom, leaving him to linger brain-dead until his death.

Emanuel Sullivan, 20, was found dead in his cell on May 28, 2022, 110 days after he was arrested for taking part in the fatal home invasion of Staten Island body-builder Tamer Shaarawy, 38; no cause of death has been released for Sullivan.

Mary Yehudah, 31, died at Queens’ Elmhurst Hospital on May 18, 2022, after a dose of Narcan failed to reverse a suspected drug overdose at the jail the previous day; in reality, she succumbed to untreated diabetes, according to a notice of claim filed in advance of a suit by her family.

Dashawn Carter, 25, was found hanging dead from his cell window on May 7, 2022, two days after he returned from a state mental hospital and was cleared to join the jail’s general population.

Herman Diaz, 52, choked to death on a piece of orange on March 18, 2022; a BOC report on May 9, 2022, faulted an unnamed guard for remaining in his office after other detainees alerted him to Diaz’s condition, though the guard at least took time to phone for someone else to help.

George Pagan, 49, died at Queens’ Elmhurst Hospital on March 17, 2022, after transport the day before from the jail; the same BOC report faulted guards for allowing him to miss six medical appointments during his nine days in custody and placing him in general population despite the fact he was so sick — from sepsis and HIV complications — that he “regularly urinated, defecated and vomited on himself.”

Tarz Youngblood, 38, died of a fentanyl overdose at the same hospital on February 17, 2022, also a day after transport from the jail; the same BOC report faulted an unnamed guard for failing to conduct required rounds, so no one knows why Youngblood collapsed in someone else’s cell, from which other detainees quickly carried him to get the guard’s attention. 

Sources: CBS News, The City, Gothamist, NBC News, New York Daily News, New York Post, New York Times, Spectrum News NY

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