2 Rikers deaths in January come after a major drop in 2023

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By Dan Sears

The death of a Rikers Island detainee in his cell on Friday night was the second at the troubled jail this month, but it follows a steep decline in detainee deaths in 2023.

In 2023, nine detainees died at Rikers, which holds people awaiting trial on criminal charges, a steep drop from 19 the year before.

Department of Correction Press Secretary Annais Morales credits the decline to actions the agency has taken, including training correction officers to prevent suicide and reverse drug overdoses, and preventing contraband from entering the facility.

But lawyers and detainees’ advocates say nine deaths are still too many.

“It’s really offensive to have them act like they’ve been making great strides in their practices when broad system failures are still happening repeatedly,” said supervising attorney Veronica Vela, with the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project.

New York City’s detainee death rate in 2022 was the highest it had been in a quarter-century, according to an analysis of city data by Gothamist. That year, 19 people died in city custody or shortly after being released, out of an average daily population of nearly 6,000 people.

That was the highest death rate since 1996, when 84 people died and the average daily population was nearly 20,000 people. The causes of death in 2022 included at least six suicides and four drug overdoses.

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Mayor Eric Adams’ administration currently faces a takeover of the city’s jail system due to what lawyers say is now an outsized risk of harm to detainees and staff, with arguments in federal court to continue this fall.

More training for staff

Morales said the department trained 90% of staff to administer the overdose-reversal drug naloxone, commonly known as Narcan. The department also required staff to take suicide prevention training, Morales said, after many officers failed to complete it in 2022.

It also increased CPR training for officers, and secured grant funding to train officers to intervene when detainees have mental health crises, Morales said.

More than 50% of those detained on Rikers have a mental health diagnosis, and about a fifth have a serious mental health diagnosis. Morales said the department also made Rikers safer by blocking thousands of weapons and drugs from entering the jails last year.

But lawyers and advocates for detainees say the recent improvements are either misleading or miss the mark.

Vela, the Legal Aid Society lawyer, said the 2022 death count was so awful that even cutting it in half is nothing to brag about.

“They’ve just gone from sort of outrageously horrible to very bad,” Vela said.

The city jail system was put under a federal monitorship in 2015 in an attempt to reduce high incidence of violence. That year, 11 people died in Department of Correction custody, at a time the jail population was about a third larger.

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Two recent deaths

The city is still investigating the two most recent Rikers deaths.

On Jan. 4, 43-year-old Chima Williams collapsed after playing basketball and was pronounced dead. On Jan. 19, 30-year-old Manuel Luna was found unresponsive in his cell and pronounced dead.

Darren Mack, an advocate for incarcerated people and their families with the organization Freedom Agenda, said many detainees were harmed in other ways despite the decline in deaths.

“Death is the worst harm that Rikers causes, but it’s also not the only harm,” Mack said. “Rikers traumatizes and destabilizes virtually everyone who ends up there.”

Morales noted that the Department of Correction assigned social workers to detainees known to harm themselves and hired three new full-time chaplains. At the same time, Vela noted, the department cut $17 million of external programming last year, and detainees frequently report being locked down in their cells over 22 hours a day without any programming, exacerbating their mental health issues.

The biggest issue repeatedly stated in investigative reports filed by city and federal officials following detainee deaths is the failure by correction officers to monitor detainees.

The Board of Correction found correction officers did not adequately check on people in custody in 13 of the 19 deaths that took place in 2022. The same problem persisted in 2023, according to an oversight group’s report. Officers are required to check on detainees at least every 30 minutes, and every 15 minutes in mental observation units, but often fail to do so, according to the reviews of the deaths.

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“The major issue seems to be management and training with respect to how to have people safely in your care and custody,” said Liz Glazer, former director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association declined to comment.

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