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Record Deaths at Rikers Island Blamed on Guards’ Absenteeism, Abuse and Corruption

by Anthony W. Accurso and David M. Reutter

After 16 detainee deaths in 2021[See: PLN, Feb. 2022, p.1], the carnage continued at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex in 2022, leaving 19 more people dead. Having recorded an average of just six deaths a year from 2017 through 2020, the jail has seen a drastic increase since the onset of COVID-19.

According to James Austin, a South Carolina carceral expert hired by the city Department of Correction (DOC) to help, violence is skyrocketing, with detainees and staff assaulted at a rate that is ten times higher than in Los Angeles County jails or the New York state prison system.

Contributing to that is a rate of guard absenteeism that is also skyrocketing, up 215% in two years. [See: PLN, May 2022, p.54.] In its Second Report and Recommendations on 2022 Deaths in New York City Department of Correction Custody released on November 16, 2022, the city Board of Correction (BOC) faulted “insufficient rounding and supervision” for many detainee deaths.

“[Guards] consistently failed to tour and supervise people in their care in accordance with DOC policy, whether it be every 30 minutes in general population housing or 15 minutes in mental observation housing,” the report noted. Even when they did walk through a housing area, guards “often did not check each cell to ensure the people within were alive and breathing.”

Training chief Herns Mitton was supposed to lead the charge to address these problems, but he quit in September 2022 after just nine days on the job. In his previous role overseeing DOC’s Emergency Services Unit (ESU), he had also taken heat from the federal monitor overseeing a class-action lawsuit challenging conditions at the jail. Steven J. Martin’s semi-annual reports from 2017 forward repeatedly cited DOC for “over-reliance” on ESU and its “hyper-confrontational” teams.

“When force is employed, ESU staff often utilize improper head-strikes, violent body slams and take downs,” Martin reported in 2020, adding that the “default response is often exceedingly disproportionate to the level of threat.”

The BOC report also faulted guards for failing “to render CPR or first aid in case of emergencies.” When Elijah Muhammad, 31, was found unresponsive on July 10, 2022, guards “waited at least three to four minutes … to begin chest compressions.” He then died.

Muhammad’s death was ruled a fentanyl overdose, which points to another problem with Rikers Island guards. Besides not showing up for work, or abusing or neglecting detainees when they do show up, there are allegations of corruption.

Predictably, Corrections Officers’ Benevolent Association President Benny Boscio poo-poos the notion that contraband at Rikers Island is smuggled by guards — pointing to expensive body scanners that are supposed to prevent it. But there are several arrests and convictions to give the lie to that assertion.

Two former guards, Katrina Patterson,31, and Krystle Burrell, 35, pleaded guilty to smuggling charges on September 21, 2022. For delivering detainees cellphones and drugs, Patterson took bribes totaling $34,000, while Burrell was paid another $10,000.

Then, in November 2022, another ex-guard testified that he smuggled marijuana and K2 into the lockup in 2019. Patrick Legerme, 32, admitted giving the drugs to detainee James Albert, 45, who was on trial for his role in the scheme.

Legerme is awaiting sentencing. So is Albert. One of five detainees involved in the operation, he was convicted on December 1, 2022. Another former guard, Karin Robinson, 29, was indicted on January 6, 2023, for allegedly taking bribes to smuggle drugs to him at the jail between February and June 2019.

The mismanagement and corruption appear to be endemic. In an email sent on June 16, 2022, BOC advised the acting warden at the Eric M. Taylor Center, Rikers Island’s main intake facility for men, that staffers were tampering with an electronic dashboard designed to keep people from staying in crowded intake pens more than 24 hours.

The director of violence prevention for BOC warned that over just one period lasting two days, he found 17 detainees whose start times in custody had been altered — “often … as a newly admitted person … approached their 24 hour clock expiration, or sometimes following the expiration.”

That same month, Judge Laura Taylor Swain of the federal court for the Southern District of New York threatened to put the entire jail complex under federal court-appointed receivership by November 17, 2022. Come that date, though, Swain blinked; instead, she asked Martin to submit additional status reports on March 31 and June 9, 2023. An application by Plaintiffs’ Class Counsel to begin the process of holding Defendants in Contempt and trigger the appointment of a receiver was then denied on November 21, 2022. See: Nuñez v. N.Y.C. Dep’t of Corr., USDC (S.D.N.Y.), Case No. 1:11-cv-05845.

On December 16, 2022, DOC Commissioner Louis Molina said he had fired three more of the city’s scarce guards after a city judge agreed evidence showed they were drinking on the job at Rikers Island’s Manhattan Detention Center, also known as “the Tombs.”

Reviewing surveillance video, Administrative Judge Kevin Casey agreed that guard Sylvester Wilson took 7-Eleven coffee cups to a jail bathroom and filled them with booze, sharing it then with fellow guards Koryelle Cameron and Chanel Winfrey. The trio was caught after the prison warden was tipped off by a city police detective. They ditched the liquor bottle, but their coffee cups tested positive for alcohol. Casey recommended termination only for Wilson, but Molina canned all three.

“It is paramount that we uphold the public’s trust as public servants,” Molina insisted.

There were 13 detainee deaths recorded at Rikers Island in 2022 by August 30. [See: PLN, Oct. 2022, p.24.] Six more followed over the next four months.

September 14, 2022 — Kevin Bryan, 45, was found fatally hanged inside a locked staff bathroom. He was arrested seven days earlier on burglary charges and held on $5,000 bail.

September 20, 2022 — Gregory Acevedo, 48, jumped to his death in the East River from the recreation area on the roof of a barge known officially as the Vernon C. Bain Center, but colloquially called “the barge.” He was on parole when arrested for robbery and assault on February 26, 2022.

September 22, 2022 — Elmore Robert Pondexter, 59, died at a hospital after collapsing four days earlier at the jail’s intensive psychiatric care facility. In the interim, Molina reportedly tried to push through a compassionate release so the death would not count toward the jail’s total.

October 22, 2022 — Erick Tavira, 28, was found fatally hanged with a sheet in the mental health observation unit. He was arrested 16 months earlier for allegedly choking a stranger and assaulting a responding policeman. In the interim, BOC noted, he was moved 20 times. He died while a guard skipped a required every-15-minute check.

October 31, 2022 — Gilberto Garcia, 26, died of a suspected fentanyl overdose. He had been in custody since his arrest for a Manhattan robbery three years earlier.

December 11, 2022 — Edgardo Mejias, 39, died of a suspected overdose. He had been arrested on September 30, 2022, and held on $15,000 bail on allegations of shoplifting and menacing with a knife. 

Additional sources: Gothamist, New York Daily News, New York Focus, New York Post, New York Times

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