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Living and Dying on Rikers Island

When 55-year-old William Brown, a pretrial detainee from Brooklyn, suffered a medical emergency and died on December 15, 2021, it was the 16th death recorded for the year of someone incarcerated at Rikers Island, the sprawling and troubled New York City jail complex. Former Mayor Bill DeBlasio (D) targeted it for closure by 2027, a plan that is also backed by new Mayor Eric Adams (D).

But Adams put himself at odds with 29 members in the majority of the 51-member City Council who not only back the closing of Rikers but also DeBlasio’s measure to discontinue using solitary confinement, which took effect on the former mayor’s last day of office on December 31, 2021.

“They better enjoy that one-day reprieve,” Adams warned, “because Jan. 1, [prisoners are] going back into punitive segregation if they commit a violent act.”

The majority councilmembers replied in a statement: “New York City will never torture our way to safety.”

The dust-up has those who want to close Rikers Island nervous about the new mayor’s commitment to the plan. It also comes just over a week after a city judge, April Newbauer, ordered the release of an unnamed Rikers prisoner on December 22, 2021, because DeBlasio and Commissioner Vincent Shiraldi of the city’s Department of Corrections (DOC) “utterly failed the public as well as this [detainee] by ignoring the looming threat of a crisis at Rikers Island, by delaying emergency measures as staff shortages increased, and by not adopting an ‘all hands on deck’ approach to this entirely foreseeable crisis.”

That crisis included “squalid conditions” and “rampant violence,” as well as “a lack of essential services such as food and water” for the detainee, who was held in a crowded intake cell in October 2021 for three days, far longer than the statutory limit of 24 hours.

There the detainee was brutally assaulted in an incident that attackers shielded from a security camera by throwing a towel over it for two hours—something the judge said that staff should have caught after a few minutes.

The detainee was then moved elsewhere in the short-staffed lockup because gangs had run of the cellblock, reportedly limiting access to food and water and holding a “fight night” on October 19, 2021, at which guards looked the other way while prisoners beat one another for gang members’ entertainment.

“For years,” reported the New York Times on December 31, 2021, “the least experienced officers” have been left “in charge of detainee dorms and cells, posts that are critical for keeping order” but which more experienced guards view as “punishment posts to be avoided.”

Meanwhile an investigation is underway into the latest death at Rikers, that of William Brown. A cause of death has been determined for all but one other prisoner who died at Rikers in 2021, including two who succumbed to COVID-19 and another six who committed suicide. Five of the six remaining deaths could plausibly be attributed to natural causes, except for a confirmed fatal drug overdose. And then there was Thomas Earl Braunson III.

Braunson, 35, had just become a father three months before his April 2021 arrest on a shoplifting charge and subsequent parole violation. After spending three days in intake without proper bedding supplies or food, he was shipped to a permanent housing area in the Eric M. Taylor Center (EMTC) on Rikers Island. A prisoner in the unit with him later recalled for investigators that Braunson seemed to be suffering from drug withdrawal. Yet he received no medical attention. On the morning of April 19, at 8:30 a.m., he was found lying dead in a pool of his own vomit and blood.

“His world had changed,” insisted his girlfriend, Trisha Alam. “Vinessa [his daughter] became the focus of all he said and did. He was going to come home and help with the baby.”

The family now seeks answers, wanting to know how this could happen. Calling his death “careless, reckless, and negligent,” they claim the jail failed to adequately screen Braunson for signs of drug use and withdrawal. A report prepared for the New York City Board of Correction (BOC) four days after his death boosted that argument, documenting “horrible conditions in the EMTC intake pens, where Mr. Braunson spent several days before his death,” believed to have been caused by a cocktail of drugs containing fentanyl, which he may have obtained while inside the jail.

For many who die on Rikers Island, however, the tragedy doesn’t end there. Those whose remains are not collected are passed off to prisoner grave diggers. No other work detail for Rikers Island prisoners pays more than 62 cents per hour, except for those who receive $6.00 per hour to bury the dead at a mass gravesite on Hart Island, a few miles up the East River.

The Hart Island public cemetery was first used in 1869 and now holds over 1 million deceased. It is so full of the unclaimed, unidentified, and unwanted cadavers that interment of multiple bodies in the same grave is allowed. The city’s Department of Corrections (DOC) began using prisoners to dig graves there after an increase in deaths at the jail complex during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prisoner rights advocates call it an abuse of prison labor. But the city found it difficult to fill these positions, leading to the exploitation of prisoners who are also exposed to potential infection handling bodies of COVID-19 victims.

An ex-prisoner from Rikers Island, Vincent Mingalone, worked the burial detail while incarcerated there, and he said his job was to bury the dead, map the burial sites, and mark the names on the caskets. He added that he was always curious about who it was he was interring.

“I must say, we did take pride in what we did, and we knew we were the only ones there for these people,” Mingalone said, “and you know, it’s just always intriguing that there’s so many stories, like we didn’t know this person, we didn’t see this person, they’re inside of a box.”

Not Fit for Man nor Beast

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