Brooklyn Boro

Rikers death toll hits grim mark

Man dies shortly after being granted compassionate release, marking the 16th detainee death of the year

September 28, 2022 Jacob Kaye
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Only weeks away before it will attempt to prove to a federal judge that it has gained control of Rikers Island, the city’s Department of Correction passed a grim milestone.

Robert Pondexter, a 59-year-old who was held in Rikers Island’s George R. Vierno Center, died on Friday, becoming the 16th person to die while in or shortly after being granted compassionate release from DOC custody this year.

With still three months remaining in the year, there have been as many deaths in the city’s failing jail in 2022 as there were last year, which saw more deaths than any year dating back to 2013.

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Pondexter, who died in Bellevue Hospital, was granted compassionate release a few days after suffering a medical emergency while incarcerated on Sept. 18. By being granted compassionate release, Pondexter was not counted toward the DOC’s official death toll.

His death was not reported to the Board of Correction, the DOC’s oversight body – it was, however, reported to Correctional Health Services, according to the DOC. No release informing the media about his death was sent to reporters – a practice that has become standard this year. The New York Times first reported Pondexter’s death on Tuesday morning.

The publication reported that DOC Commissioner Louis Molina, who was appointed to the position at the start of the year, sent an email to a number of staff members shortly after Pondexter’s admittance to Bellevue asking that they “make sure we do what we can” to ensure the detainee was “off the Department’s count.”

On Tuesday, a DOC spokesperson told the Eagle that while the compassionate release – which the DOC cannot grant – may have changed the way Pondexter’s death was recorded, Molina sent the email for different reasons.

“Let’s be clear – the Department strongly supports compassionate release only because it allows for family members to spend time with the individual when they need the most care and support, and never to influence departmental statistics,” the spokesperson said. “The language used by Commissioner Molina in that email is technical in nature – removing someone off the departments ‘count’ allows for them to spend time with their family with maximum privacy, unaccompanied by DOC staff.”

“Suggesting it was an effort to improve DOC statistics is both incorrect and offensive,” the spokesperson added. “The Department, of course, cannot grant compassionate release, the courts make the ultimate decision, and this is a single email being taken out of context. The department’s treatment of those in its custody is never influenced by whether a family accepts compassionate release or not.”

It’s not the first time the DOC has granted compassionate release to a detainee shortly before their death.

Mayor Eric Adams on Tuesday defended DOC Commissioner Louis Molina’s push to grant a detainee compassionate release shortly before his death. File photo by Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

In June, Antonio Bradley, who was being held on weapons possession charges, attempted to hang himself in Bronx Criminal Court. He was hospitalized, granted compassionate release and died shortly after. His death was not reported by the DOC until Bradley’s death was reported by the New York Daily News later that month.

Multiple incarcerated people were granted compassionate release before their deaths under the administration of former Mayor Bill de Blasio.

It’s also not the first time Molina and the DOC have been accused of poor transparency practices. In June, attorneys with the Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Defender Services and Milbank LLP, accused the DOC of changing the way it presents its medical services data to show that more detainees were being taken by correctional officers to medical appointments. A judge had previously ruled the agency had failed in its mandate to offer medical services to Rikers’ detained population.

Compassionate release is granted by a judge. It is only granted after a sign off from a medical provider. In addition to changing the way the death of a person who is granted compassionate release is recorded, the action also allows the person to be free of correctional supervision in the hospital until they heal or, as is more often the case, die.

The Legal Aid Society, which was representing Pondexter, who was facing rape charges dating back to 2020, petitioned the courts for compassionate release to be granted to their client shortly after his medical emergency. The Legal Aid Society also represented Gregory Acevedo, who died last week after an alleged escape attempt from the jail facilities barge.

On Tuesday, the public defense group railed against DOC and city leadership for how they’ve handled the deaths of detainees this year and their ability to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

“Mayor [Eric] Adams and Commissioner Molina have demonstrated that they will not or cannot keep people safe in local jails,” the Legal Aid Society said in a statement. “They have forfeited any claim of legitimate authority to incarcerate, and broken the public trust, underscoring the need for appointment of a receiver and a complete overhaul of this agency and its entrenched culture of incompetence and violence.”

“We expect the Department to be accountable for their actions in Mr. Pondexter’s final hours,” the public defense group added. “To date, the Department has failed to demonstrate accountability for the death toll, but instead rests in obfuscation and delay.”

The Legal Aid Society also called on the agency to be more transparent, particularly with its reporting to the BOC, which is one of the bodies that investigates death in custody.

“With each death this year, City Hall and DOC leadership have stonewalled the public and refused to provide timely and accurate information,” they said. “The information provided by the New York City Board of Correction, the oversight body, suggests a reason City Hall has attempted such authoritarian control of information: the deaths in custody reviewed by BOC show a shocking incompetence and failure of DOC to carry out basic correctional duties.”

Mayor Eric Adams, who recently suggested that the city may have to reassess its plan – as mandated by law – to close Rikers in 2027 and shift pre-trial detention and short city sentences to four borough-based jails, defended Molina on Tuesday.

“Molina has no control on the release of a person that’s during that compassionate release – he doesn’t have control of that,” Adams said. “He put in for it and then other entities…make that decision.”

“It was very thoughtful for him to do it,” he added.

The city and DOC will appear before federal Judge Laura T. Swain to argue that it’s been adhering to an “action plan” presented to and approved by the judge earlier this year. The plan, which was ordered to be created after U.S. Attorney Damian Williams and the Legal Aid Society representing a class of current and formerly incarcerated plaintiffs called on the judge to institute a federal receivership over the jail, was designed to improve conditions on Rikers Island.

While a number of indicators mentioned in the plan appear to have been improving, a number of troubling trends, including the jail’s death count, remain.

Slashings and stabbings are up by around 36 percent on the year and have increased nearly every month since the action plan was introduced.

Use of force incidents and fights between detainees have decreased when compared to last year, according to the DOC.

Should Swain find that conditions in the jail complex have not improved or have remained the same, she could call for a federal receivership.

The legal action, which is largely defined by the judge, could mean that a federal authority takes complete control over the everyday management of Rikers Island. Swain could also order a less extreme federal receivership, in which a federal authority works more in partnership with the current leadership of the jail complex.

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