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New York City Stops Reporting Rikers Island Deaths Amid Rampant Guard Misconduct

by Kevin W. Bliss, Chuck Sharman and Benjamin Tschirhart

On May 31, 2023, Luis Molina, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction (DOC), announced his agency would no longer make public reports of in-custody deaths. Why? Molina blamed the federal monitor overseeing a long-running class-action lawsuit to improve conditions at the city’s notorious Rikers Island jail complex, claiming Steven J. Martin was weaponizing the data to make DOC look bad.

Molina’s ire was apparently piqued a day earlier, when Martin reported to the federal court for the Southern District of New York that Molina had mischaracterized five detainee deaths in ways that made them appear less preventable than they were. There were 19 deaths at the jail in 2022, and three more by May 2023.

The gloves then came off as Martin accused Molina and DOC of “inaccuracies and a lack of transparency” in another filing in the case on June 8, 2023. In a third filing on June 12, 2023, Martin told Judge Laura Taylor Swain that “it is difficult for the Monitoring Team to keep the Court appropriately apprised of matters when the City and [DOC] take positions and actions that shift day to day and certain information is only provided piecemeal days after the deadline imposed by the Court.”

Martin reiterated his accusation that in deaths and use-of-force incidents he investigated, Molina rushed to “premature conclusions that not only appear inconsistent with the available objective evidence but also suggest an attempt to excuse or avoid responsibility for a very serious event.” The monitor then asked Swain to order the city and DOC to cooperate with his information requests and provide a remedial plan to address deficiencies identified in Martin’s investigation. See: Nunez v. City of New York, USDC (S.D.N.Y.), Case No. 1:11-cv-05845.

Notorious for its deteriorating conditions, Rikers Island has suffered a staffing crisis marked by chronic guard absenteeism and accusations they abuse sick leave. Reform efforts have focused on holding guards accountable for misconduct and improving transparency regarding their use of force. A 2021 New York Times analysis found that over half of guards who were disciplined provided false, misleading, or incomplete accounts.

Meanwhile, June 30, 2023, was the last day for jail programs providing training in carpentry and plumbing skills, financial literacy, cognitive behavioral therapy, drug relapse prevention and anger management. Mayor Eric Adams (D) killed them to shave $17 million off DOC’s $1.2 billion budget.

The loss of programming, critical to successful re-entry for released detainees, came just months after the jail lost another lifeline for them, when its contract lapsed in mid-2022 with electronic tablet provider American Prison Data Systems. [See: PLN, Dec. 5, 2022, online.] Fortunately, tablets from new provider Securus Technologies began arriving at the end of 2022.

Three Guards Convicted of Fraud, Two More of Smuggling

In-cell diversion cannot make up for missed programming and medical appointments caused by a chronic shortage of guards, however. Even as the pandemic receded in January 2022, one in three guards was not reporting for work, stranding detainees who needed escorts to medical appointments and leaving those guards who did show up at heightened risk of assault. The head of the guard’s union, Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA) Pres. Benny Boscio, insisted their dangerous working conditions entitled his members to such generous sick leave.

Then, on May 7, 2023, convictions were handed down in federal court to a trio of Rikers Island guards who pleaded guilty to sitting out work while they ran errands or took vacations instead. Steven Cange, 49, Monica Coaxum 36, and Eduardo Trinidad, 42, admitted taking a total of almost $340,000 in pay and were convicted of federal program fraud.

Cange claimed the COVID-19 vaccine sidelined him with vertigo from March 2021 to November 2022, while he continued to collect more than $160,000 in salary. Coaxum was paid over $80,000 while on sick leave from March 2021 to May 2022. Trinidad, her fiancé, collected more than $140,000 in salary while taking sick leave from June 2021 to November 2022. All three made the prosecution’s case against them, posting selfies on social media that revealed they were engaged in normal activities and even bragged about their easy life on leave. They resigned from DOC in January 2023. [See: PLN, Mar. 2023, p.63.]

Quick to distance himself and the rest of his union from the fraudsters, Boscio insisted that “[t]hese are obviously extremely serious allegations and if true, do not represent the 99 percent of our officers who are working excessive amounts of overtime without meals to keep our city safe every day.”

Among the one percent who were not were former guards Katrina Patterson, 32, Krystal Burrell, 36, and Patrick Legerme, 32. Legerme admitted smuggling contraband to former detainee James Albert during the latter’s November 2022 trial. Legerme is still awaiting sentencing. Patterson and Burrell pleaded guilty in September 2022 also to taking bribes to smuggle cellphones and drugs to Albert. A fourth guard, Karin Robinson, 29, was indicted in the scheme in January 2023 and is still awaiting trial. [See: PLN, Feb. 2023, p.28]

A jury in federal court for the Eastern District of New York convicted Albert, 45, for his role in the scheme on December 1, 2022. He and his wife, co-defendant Celena Burgess, admitted paying bribes to Robinson and Legerme. Like Legerme, Burgess cooperated with prosecutors and is awaiting sentencing. Patterson was sentenced to 366 days in prison on April 25, 2023. See: United States v. Albert, USDC (E.D.N.Y.), Case No. 1:20-cr-00064. 

Burrell, while also awaiting sentencing in that case, was accused again of attempting to smuggle drugs in late 2022 to another detainee involved in the scheme, her boyfriend, Blood Hound Brims gang member Terrae “Tomato Sauce” Hinds. By then in BOP custody at Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn, Hinds allegedly missed a handoff of drugs from Burrell in the federal courthouse when guards wouldn’t let him go to the bathroom, where they later found the contraband that they say Burrell had an accomplice stash there.

Before that could be traced to her, though, guards searched Hinds’ cell, finding a cellphone with text messages exchanged with Burrell to celebrate a successful smuggling effort that left Hinds “swagged out” and plotting to bribe an MDC guard. After that, Burrell was hit with new smuggling charges. A judge revoked her bond, and she is now in MDC, too.

Seven Staffers Suspended After Detainee’s Ignored Fatal Seizure

On February 4, 2023, DOC suspended a captain, two other guards and two assistant deputy wardens, following a city Board of Correction (BOC) review of Marvin Pines’ death at Rikers Island on August 3, 2022. Two nurses with the jail health system, Correctional Health Services, were also suspended. None of those suspended was named.

BOC determined that Pines, 65, apparently suffered a seizure in the shower. He was discovered at 4:30 a.m. by another detainee, who reported Pines was “shaking, trembling and breathing heavy.”

Pines was jailed on drug charges in August 2022 and pleaded guilty to several of the charges the following November. Diagnosed with mental health issues and hypertension, he was being held in the North Infirmary with the jail’s sickest detainees while awaiting sentencing to a state prison – where, ironically, he could have received addiction treatment unavailable to him on Rikers Island.

The night he died, other detainees reported Pines was sick in the bathroom for over an hour, the BOC review found. Yet no guard checked on him. In fact, one guard left his assigned post at 2:00 a.m. without being relieved, leaving the unit without a required second guard until 3:17 a.m.

When a second guard finally came on duty and made rounds at 3:44 a.m., he failed to check the bathrooms, where he would have discovered Pines – perhaps in time to save his life. BOC had already blamed absent guards and failures to complete checks on detainees for the deaths of George Pagan and Herman Diaz in 2022. [See: PLN, Oct. 2022, p.24.]

Pines was pronounced dead at 6:18 a.m. The official report points to his history of drug use and claims that “a search of the area” revealed a book with pages soaked in “an unknown liquid substance.”

Boscio called the suspensions a “knee-jerk” reaction, insisting that responding guards “engaged in heroic efforts” to save Pines as they “administered the opioid agonist Narcan and performed CPR, to no avail.”

But Pines family attorney Tayo Bland said the evidence shows “numerous oversights and missteps by staff on that night.”

“Rikers has been a humanitarian crisis for some time, and Mr. Pines is unfortunately one in a long list of people who have fallen through the cracks,” Bland added.

After Pines’ death, there were two more at the jail complex two months later.

On May 16, 2023, Rubu Zhao, 54, died from a skull fracture suffered in apparent fall two days earlier over the railing from the upper tier of the jail psychiatric unit. Since there weren’t enough guards around to witness the fall, they initially treated him for a seizure. He had been held on suspicion of his unnamed girlfriend’s fatal stabbing in December 2022.

On May 27, 2023, Joshua Valles, 31, suffered a fatal heart attack while undergoing testing to investigate complaints of headache and nausea. He had been arrested on April 7, 2023, on suspicion of burglary. His mother, Denise Ferrer, blamed mental illness and drug use for both his alleged crime and his death, saying she wished he’d gotten treatment for both at the jail.

Seven-Year Delay in Justice

In addition to the guards who smuggle or ignore their duties, there are others who show up for work expecting to have sex. Former guard Leonard McNeill was fired June 22, 2022, seven years after he was first accused of sexually assaulting a detainee. The guard had already maintained a sexual relationship for four months with the detainee – who by state law could not give consent –before the truth came out after she was raped by a second guard on November 30, 2015.

The unnamed “Jane Doe” victim used a tee-shirt to clean herself and mailed it to her family. From the DNA preserved in the dried semen on the shirt, guard Jose Cosme was convicted of the rape in June 2017. He was fired and given a 10-year probated sentence, as well as forced to register as a sex offender. The victim also took a $500,000 settlement from the city. [See: PLN, Jan. 2020, p.46.]

During the investigation into allegations against Cosme, it was discovered that Doe also had sex with McNeill, in exchange for candy and cigarettes. But she was reluctant to accuse him. So after a 30-day suspension – the maximum without charges filed, as negotiated by COBA – McNeill returned to work. However, he was allowed no contact with detainees.

The investigation stretched another seven years. A grand jury declined to indict McNeill, conflicted over the apparently consensual aspects of the relationship. But his case continued through COBA-negotiated arbitration. Meanwhile, McNeill continued collecting over $100,000 in pay each year, even under his modified duty capacity.

Finally, after a four-day trial before an Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH) tribunal in 2021, Administrative Law Judge Kevin Casey wrote that McNeill “fundamentally violated his duties as a correction officer.” That allowed Molina finally to fire the ersatz Romeo – the only Rikers Island guard terminated for sexual abuse in five years.

From her cell in a state prison, Doe said she still suffered retaliation for her accusations, but she did not regret her decision to speak out. “I guess I would tell current and future victims, our day does come – if we find clean people to report to in a dirty place,” she said.

The excessive delay in justice for McNeill is perhaps one reason the number of sexual assault allegations against DOC personnel is far above the national average. A federal Justice Department survey found that 8.6% of women held at Rikers between 2011 and 2012 were sexually assaulted
– 5.9 % by staff. The rate in prisons across the U.S. averaged just 3.9% during the same period. [See: PLN, Jan. 2020, p. 46].

Three More Guards Charged in Detainee Assault, Another Disciplined

Then there are the guards who are just brutal. Three were charged on January 17, 2023, with covering up an assault on a Rikers Island detainee. Carl Williams, 31, Roy Dewar, 58, and Jatan Das, 64, were arraigned on charges of official misconduct, offering a false statement for filing and falsifying business records. Williams, the unnamed detainee’s alleged attacker, also faces a third-degree assault charge.

The charges against the guards, who were also suspended without pay, stem from an incident on October 14, 2021. Surveillance video captured Williams striking the detainee in the face while Dewar and Das watched. Afterward, the guards filed reports falsely claiming the detainee was the aggressor.

Bronx District Attorney Darcel D. Clark emphasized the importance of holding guards to a high standard and expressed zero tolerance for both violence and cover-ups at the jail. But Boscio criticized Clark for a “media circus” he said was driven by politics rather than facts.

Another act in the center ring of the circus was guard Mezinski Merilus, 39. He admitted that in November 2019, after a detainee splashed him with urine, he “let the situation get the best of him” and filled a Gatorade bottle with his own urine that he threw back on the detainee. Merilus also sat out a 30-day suspsension while prosecutors apparently decided not to press criminal charges.

But on May 2, 2023, OATH Administrative Law Judge Astrid Gloade recommend that DOC fire him because he “was unable to control his anger and carried out a methodical and deeply disturbing plan to retaliate against an incarcerated person.” Boscio, unsurprisingly, said that he and COBA “strongly disagree” with the findings and recommendation. See: Dep’t of Correction v. Merilus, OATH Index No. 1821/23.

As the detainee population rebounds from lows reached during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Adams has begun to question current plans to close the Rikers Island jails by 2027, suggesting the city needs a “Plan B” instead. Adams is cagey about what that plan might look like, vaguely vowing to follow the law even as his chief counsel, Brendan McGuire, heads a small working group to flesh out the alternative plan.

Former Mayor Bill DeBlasio (D) led the city council to approve a plan to replace Rikers Island with four smaller jails around the city. Now estimated to cost a total of $10 billion, they together will hold about 3,300 detainees, considerably fewer than the 5,940 in city lockups in May 2023. For Adams, a former city cop, this a problem. But for the city council’s progressive majority, it’s a chance to stop holding so many people just because they can’t make bail, while also finding better facilities to treat those suffering mental illness – currently about 18% of the detained population.

Despite his campaign vow to increase transparency in city government, Adams refused to criticize his DOC chief for lowering a curtain over jail death data.

Additional sources: The City, Gothamist, Gov’t Technology, The Marshall Project, New York Daily News, New York Post, New York Times