Rikers Island’s deadly toll: Inmate deaths and court reports ignite calls for reform

July 12, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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Rikers Island and the New York City Department of Correction (DOC) continue to attract criticism and calls for reform due to ongoing concerns regarding the treatment of detainees. With the death toll rising, activists and legal experts are demanding changes to what has been called a “death camp.”

Ricky Howell, a 60-year-old homeless man diagnosed with terminal cancer at the time of his arrest, is the most recent individual to lose his life while in custody. His death has fueled a wave of condemnation from both The Legal Aid Society and the Freedom Agenda co-director Darren Mack, calling out the collective indifference of those involved in the incarceration process. Despite his terminal illness, Howell was held in custody and died in Bellevue Hospital on July 6.

In the same week, Felix Taveras, who was being held at the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers Island, died of an alleged overdose. Four Rikers Island staff members were suspended for their inaction during Taveras’ ordeal, echoing similar suspensions following the deaths of Marvin Pines and Rubu Zhao earlier this year. The death of Howell marks the fifth this year, the 24th since Mayor Eric Adams took office and the 40th since the start of 2021.

The escalating death toll underscores the urgency for reforms within the DOC. According to a recent report by court-appointed federal monitor Steve J. Martin, the Department of Correction should be held in contempt of court due to its inability to ensure safety within Rikers Island. Martin suggests that the city and department’s failure to improve conditions and address security deficiencies in the jail has normalized harm and suffering. This failure extends to the inability to make substantial and demonstrable progress in implementing the reforms, initiatives, plans, systems, and practices outlined in the “action plan,” the result of a court order in the wake of the ongoing case, Nunez v. the City of New York.

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The number of use-of-force incidents committed by officers against detainees has also been highlighted as a significant concern. Despite a 25% decrease in these incidents compared to the 2021 crisis peak, the current rate is still 131% higher than when the Nunez case began in 2016, indicating an enduring pattern of excessive and unnecessary use of force.

The DOC’s current management structure is under scrutiny, with a push for federal receivership gaining momentum. The proposed court order would strip the city’s control over Rikers Island, transferring it to a court-appointed authority. This move is seen as necessary by The Legal Aid Society, arguing that current efforts to change the DOC’s pattern of brutality have failed, evidenced by continuous reports of injuries and death.

The next appearance in the Nunez case is scheduled for early August, where further steps toward receivership are expected to be discussed. As the debate over the future of Rikers Island and the Department of Correction continues, the calls for urgent reform grow louder, echoing the somber reminder of the lives lost and individuals affected by systemic failures.


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