Public Defender Groups Say Death Of Rikers Detainee Underscores Poor Conditions At Complex

As correction officials promise a full investigation into the death of Brandon Rodriguez inside Rikers Island, jail reform advocates and lawmakers say his death serves as another example of substandard conditions for the city’s jail population and staffers.

An investigation is now underway into the death of Rodriguez, who was held at the jail for allegedly trying to choke someone, court records show. He was reported dead inside his cell at the Otis Bantum Correction Center at Rikers Island on August 10th, according to the city Department of Correction. His cause of death has not been disclosed, though the Daily News reports Rodriguez completed suicide by hanging.

Since March, there have been at least five deaths inside Rikers Island, which is slated to close and be replaced with three borough-based jails. Other reported detainee deaths at Rikers Island this year include two detainees who died within days of each other in March—one after sticking his head inside a cuff slot, and the other in an apparent suicide. In April, Thomas Earl Braunson III was reportedly found dead inside his cell at the Eric M. Taylor Center. In June, correction officials said detainee Robert Jackson reportedly died in June inside his cell.

While other law enforcement agencies routinely report when someone has died in their custody, the city Department of Corrections does not immediately disclose deaths of detainees. DOC reports the number of deaths to the Board of Correction and the New York State Commission of Correction. They also reach out to a detainee’s emergency contact or next of kin.

“As advocates, we have been raising the alarm about substandard care and inhumane treatment in these locations for many years, yet the conditions have continued to deteriorate,” read a joint statement from advocacy groups that included Brooklyn Defender Services, The Bronx Defenders, The Legal Aid Society, Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, and New York County Defender Services. “The pandemic has both exacerbated and exposed the deplorable circumstances in which our incarcerated neighbors are forced to live.”

According to THE CITY, conditions inside the Eric M. Taylor Center ranged from “severe staffing and supplies issues” and “missing sheets and blankets,” as outlined by a doctor’s report to the Board of Correction. The report went on to say men detained did not receive “recreation or meals on a regular schedule” and no pillows.

The lack of basic services and increased deaths at Rikers Island coincides with an increase of its detainee population, which has worried advocates who believe the additional detainee could lead to another outbreak of COVID inside. As of August 6th, advocates say 5,902 people were held at Rikers Island, compared to 5,557 people held there on March 6th, 2020.

The details surrounding Rodriguez’s death remain unclear, including whether a correction officer was closely monitoring Rodriguez. After he was found in his cell, correction officers had performed CPR on Rodriguez before he was later declared dead by medical personnel. A spokesperson for the DOC said the death is still under investigation and did not answer whether an officer was near Rodriguez’s cell.

In a statement, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said Rodriguez “received a death sentence” without going to trial.

“We need a thorough investigation of these incidents, and we need transformational change of the systems that tacitly and overtly permit it,” Williams said. “It has long been clear that mismanagement, misplaced priorities, and missing resources have created an environment that harms both corrections staff and incarcerated individuals, an environment in which humanity and health of those inside are disregarded, with too often tragic results.”

Those lack of resources include guards, according to the union representing correction officers. The Correction Officers Benevolent Association has spent the last two years pleading with the city to increase its head count from 7,600 to 9,600. The city is expected to hire an additional 400 by this fall. But jail reform advocates argue that the onus is on the existing guards, who have failed to show up for work while not providing food, medical attention, and other legally mandated services.

The lack of correction staffing inside the city’s jails has worried employees at medical units treating detainees. Unions representing doctors, nurses, and other medical staff assigned to the jail system are planning a rally on Monday to highlight the current atmosphere.

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