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More than 370 people have died in NYC jails since 2001

Most jailhouse deaths go unnoticed by the broader public — and information remains scarce.

October 23, 2019 David Brand
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Jason Echevarria died in 2012 after eating chemical detergent when Rikers Island correction officers declined to get him medical help. Carina Montes and Jose Cruz committed suicide in 2003, even though they were on suicide watch. Layleen Polanco died in June after suffering a seizure while trapped in solitary confinement.

The four detainees’ deaths generated significant media coverage and prompted public outcry — but scores of others have died in New York City’s jails, and their deaths have gone under the public radar.

At least 372 people have died in New York City Department of Correction custody since 2001, according to DOC records shared with the Eagle.

Information provided by the Correctional Association of New York and the office of Assemblymember David Weprin, chair of the State Assembly’s Committee on Correction, place the death toll at 374, with different totals in a few years. That two-death disparity is unclear, as specific records are difficult to obtain.

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This year, two people have died in city jails: Layleen Polanco at the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island and Jose Rivera at a jail medical unit. Eight detainees died last year; six in 2017.

The death rate has dropped significantly since 2001, when at least 36 people died in DOC custody, but there have been spikes: Fifteen detainees died in city jails in 2016. At least 24 people died in city jails in 2013, compared to 12 in 2011.

Seeking accountability

Though the extreme circumstances of some of these deaths stand out, most jailhouse deaths go largely unnoticed by the broader public, especially when they are attributed to an individual’s pre-detention health problems.

“Medical” was listed as the cause of 82 percent of the 372 detainee deaths recorded by the city since 2001, according to the DOC statistics. There were 41 suicides and 14 homicides, as well as 11 attributed to “accidents” in the same time period. The State Commission of Correction’s Forensic Unit classifies the deaths as “natural causes” or “unknown causes.”

The vagueness of the terms, however, can mask negligence and poor treatment that can fatally exacerbate pre-existing medical conditions, said Dr. Homer Venters, former chief medical officer of the NYC Correctional Health Services.

Dr. Venters specifically cited the 2013 case of Carlos Mercado, who suffered for hours before dying of insulin-dependent ketoacidosis as corrections officers looked on. They thought he was going through opioid withdrawal, the Daily News reported.

“Deaths like that happen all the time, but because the medical examiner or coroner writes the words ‘natural causes,’ it serves to absolve the jail system of responsibility,” Venters said. After Mercado’s death, the city paid his family a $1.5 million settlement.

A state commission highlighted failings by DOC and medical staff connected to Mercado’s death in a 2018 report on “problematic jails.” The report summarized a few anonymous examples of medical neglect or detainee abuse (Mercado is identified as “Individual 3” and the death was ruled a homicide). Venters said less dramatic cases than Mercado’s may not receive the same level of public review.

“Every death must be scrutinized through the lens of whether or not the death is jail-attributable and through a second lens — what was the reason this person was incarcerated,” Venters said.

During his time leading CHS, Venters and his staff began tracking how many deaths were “jail-attributable” — exacerbated by conditions or access to health care in the facilities. He found that in some years, “jail-attributable” deaths account for more than half of cases.

“A ‘natural causes’ death on an autopsy report does a tremendous disservice, because it gives people a sense that death is inevitable when in fact, death is the direct result of actions or inactions during incarceration,” he added.

Advocates for closing Rikers Island jails confronted Mayor Bill de Blasio during his 2017 re-election campaign. AP Photo by Mark Lennihan

Retired family court Judge Bryanne Hamill, a former member of the Board of Correction, the oversight agency that sets minimum standards for city jails, has called on the city to improve information sharing between the DOC and Correctional Health Services, which manages detainee health care.

When people with serious medical, mental health and substance abuse issues often arrive at jails, there is often little information about their health care needs or their course of medication.

“It can be difficult to get health care needs met because people come in without their medicines and medical records and there is often a lack of timely followup care, including getting people to specialty clinics,” said Hamill, whose six-year term on the board recently expired and was not renewed by Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Hamill also supports ending solitary confinement — which the city refers to as “punitive segregation” — as another key reform to prevent deaths.

“If you have someone in care and custody who is ill and has medical issues where they could decompensate and die, there has to be some information shared to make sure they’re properly housed,” she told the Eagle.

“A lot of our seriously mentally ill people belong in a hospital or a psychiatric institution. They’re too ill to be in a jail,” Hamill added. “Why are they being placed in Rikers in the first place?”

Declining death rate, but persistent problems

When Akeem Browder was detained in the late 1990s, jailhouse violence was endemic. During his first week in jail, Browder was walking to a school program when he watched a man slit another detainee’s throat in a stairwell, he said.

“A guy came up on the side of him, stabbed him in neck and kept moving,” Browder said. “The guy started gurgling and fell on top of me.”

After a general decline, the rate of violent incidents in city detention facilities increased last year, according to the 2019 Mayor’s Management Report. Homicides, however, have remained relatively rare since 2001, according to city and state data. The DOC has recorded 14 total homicides in the past 18 years. The July 2018 strangulation of detainee Casey Holloway by another detainee has been the only homicide in a city jail since 2014.

Attorney Jason Kelner, who represents Holloway’s family in civil proceedings,previously represented the family of Jason Echevarria, who died inside the George R. Vierno Center after ingesting a toxic soap ball. Corrections staff refused to get him medical help.

Holloway and Echevarria both experienced mental illness.

“What you see in both cases were corrections staff who hadn’t shown the requisite degree of training and diligence with people with mental illness,” Kelner said. “It’s complete insanity. It should never have been allowed to get to this point.”

The DOC said it has made significant strides in reducing the detention death rate. For example, the city’s rate of death per 100,000 detainees, a measure for comparing annual statistics regardless of population, is far below the national average, according to the most recent report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

“Through our work with Correctional Health Services we have become a national leader in reducing mortality, with a rate 80 percent lower than the average for jails nationwide,” said DOC Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Peter Thorne. “We recognize that one death is too many, and we’ll continue to work with CHS to ensure the safety of all those in our custody.”

The agency has also decreased the suicide rate to a historic low of one suicide since 2017, a spokesperson said. The department attributes the decrease to enhanced training for corrections officers at the training academy and preparing detainees to serve as “Suicide Prevention Aides.” At least 41 detainees have committed suicide since 2001.

Information is scarce and sporadic

Activists from the movement to close Rikers Island jails gathered at the mainland entrance to the island in June for a vigil memorializing individuals who have died behind bars. They released white balloons into the air to honor the lives lost — large balloons for adults and small ones for children, who, until October 2018 were still detained on the island.

“We’re moving the conversation from brick and mortar to the lives that are affected,” said Brandon Holmes from the organization JustLeadershipUSA. “This is about recognizing the people who have died at Rikers in the past 10 years. Remembering the people who were lost and the people who we still don’t have the solutions to get out.”

Specific information on detainee deaths — including a complete list of individuals who have died behind bars — is hard to access.

The Board of Correction said it maintains four lists “containing names of individuals who died” in DOC custody, in response to a Freedom of Information Law request from the Eagle. But the BOC cited state privacy law to shield the names of those who have died, as well as information on causes of death. The DOC and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner do not provide the names of those who have died.

Some information is available in annual reports published by the Commission on Correction, which has a Forensic Unit that investigates detainee and inmate deaths across the state. One or two sentences summarize detainee deaths in some annual reports by the State Assembly’s Committee on Correction. Additional information is available in sporadic media reports, especially when family members sue the DOC.

The lack of complete and centralized information can make it hard to assess patterns in detainee deaths, said Weprin, Committee on Correction chair.

“There is a full investigation report any time someone died in custody, but the reports are almost entirely redacted,” said Weprin, who has sponsored a bill that would release more information while prohibiting redaction, except for some health and identifying information under state and federal privacy laws. He said the redactions serve to protect staff members and the DOC from scrutiny.

“Transparency and sunshine are the best disinfectants,” he said. “The more transparent the state is in these, the better.”

‘Natural’ deaths in unnatural situations

Though the detainee death toll has decreased overall since 2001, each death in detention is inherently unnatural, say advocates for the rights of those incarcerated.

“It’s a scary time when we can see a person in need and watch them wither and fade away,” said Akeem Browder, who was detained on Rikers Island. Browder’s brother Kalief committed suicide after three years in pretrial detention — including roughly two in solitary confinement — for allegedly stealing a backpack. He was never convicted of a crime.

“We’re throw-aways,” Akeem Browder added. “That’s what we’re considered.”

Family members of Layleen Polanco, who died on Rikers Island in June, have pressed for action following her death. Eagle file photo by Phineas Rueckert

The two people who died in city jails so far this year were both detained for minor infractions. Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman who had a history of epilepsy, died in June after experiencing a seizure in a solitary confinement cell. She was charged with sex work and drug possession and couldn’t make the $500 bail.

Days later, Jose Rivera, a man experiencing homelessness, died in a jail medical unit, THE CITY reported. He was detained after he missed a meeting with his parole officer, a technical parole violation.His death is currently under state investigation. The number of people detained in New York City for suspected technical parole violations has increased steadily since 2014.

“Neither Ms. Polanco not Mr. Rivera should have ever been in city custody in the first place — Ms. Polanco was criminalized for using sex work to survive racism and transphobia, and Mr. Rivera was incarcerated on a technical parole violation,” said Nadja Guyot, an activist with the No New Jails coalition.

“Once detained, the city utterly failed in its duty to, at the very least, keep our fellow community members alive while awaiting the dispositions of their cases.”

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