Officials are looking into how ten people died in a New York correctional facility in the last seven months, and why certain protocols were not followed when disciplining inmates, compromising and sometimes violating their civil rights.
The recent death of a Black man who had been held in isolation for longer than the state mandate has led some prison stakeholders to believe that there is a significant pattern of neglect by staffers when working with those who are incarcerated.
On July 10, around 9:45 p.m., Elijah Muhammad died in Rikers Island, the world’s largest penal colony, from a suspected drug overdose. According to court records, the 31-year-old man was jailed in June after being arrested on an assault charge, according to the Daily News.
According to the New York Times, an anonymous source claimed earlier on the day of his death that Muhammad appeared disoriented and unable to walk. It is also claimed that he was dead in his cell for hours before authorities discovered his cold body.
According to a Board of Corrections member for New York City, Muhammad was locked in an isolated de-escalation unit for more than 30 hours less than a week before his premature death, five times longer than the recently adopted policy permittedby the recently adopted policy.
“It’s just really sad that [the Correction Department] can’t keep people alive,” Anisah Sabur of the #HALTsolitary Campaign lamented. This gentleman died in a cage on a Muslim holy day.”
According to the Islamic Calendar, the holy day is Eid al-Adha, which falls on Saturday, July 9. This day commemorates Ibrahim’s (Abraham’s) willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail (Ishmael) as an act of obedience to Allah’s command.
According to this provision, proposed by the New York City Board of Correction in March 2021, those who are placed in solitary confinement because they have acted out will be transferred to these de-escalation cells for a brief cooling-off period of up to six hours.
Other sources, such as the United Nations Mandela Rules, state that prolonged solitary confinement for more than 15 days should be considered human torture.
During his Tuesday board meeting, BOC member Robert Cohen stated that while visiting the George R. Vierno Center, a jail within the Rikers Island complex, he met with Muhammad and two other detainees in unit 2B.
“When I went there, there were three men, one coming in, and two had been there for over 30 hours,” Cohen recalled, recalling the meeting just five days before Muhammad died.
“It’s unclear from our review whether there were any incidents that brought them in,” he admitted. “They weren’t leaving their cells at all. They had not received their medication. Elijah Muhammad, who died on Sunday, was one of the men I spoke with that day.”
Specifically addressing DOC Commissioner Louis Molina, who was recently appointed by new NYC Mayor Eric Adams. “What have you done to clarify to your staff that the de-escalation units are not just places to dump people?” he asked the executive.
Molina responded by saying that his department has previously disciplined officers for misusing de-escalation units and that he will look into the issue of “the gentleman” being placed in isolation for too long, emphasizing that “that shouldn’t have happened.”
Molina fired the correctional officer directly responsible for Muhammad during his de-escalation period shortly after the conversation.
According to a statement, an initial review of the case indicated that the department should take “immediate action against the staff involved.”
“We treat every death with utmost seriousness and understand that it is our mandate to keep every person entrusted to our care safe,” Molina wrote.
The commissioner did not explain why the officer was fired. According to the source, the officer violated department rules and may have failed to assist or ignored Muhammad while he was suspected of overdosing.
Rikers Island reform has been closely scrutinized by prison watchdogs and law enforcement professionals.
As a result, a federal judge upheld new rules under The Humane Alternatives to Long Term Solitary Confinement, or HALT Act, that were being challenged by the state correction officers’ union earlier this month, Spectrum News 1 reported.
The HALT ACT will limit the amount of time an individual can be held in segregated confinement housing, capping the amount of time an inmate in New York’s prisons or jails can be held in segregated confinement housing at 15 days, or 20 days over a two-month period, depending on the offense committed.
The union believes that the change will deprive COs of significant power, leaving them vulnerable to prison assaults and other forms of violence.
According to Felipe Franco, a board member who attended the most recent board meeting, abiding by these new laws demonstrates compassion, particularly toward juveniles and young adults in the system.
He stated that he personally witnessed young adults being housed “in awful spaces, 23 hours a day confined behind Plexiglass with no human contact at all, no programming, and actually no clarity on how they can get out” during a BOC tour of units 3B and 3C at the North Infirmary Command earlier in July.
“I met with a young person who completely [broke down] and began talking about suicide,” Franco said.
Conversations about prison and death are becoming more common.
Since 2022, ten people have died in New York City. In June alone, three people died while incarcerated in the city, one of whom was a 28-year-old man who committed suicide.
According to DOC records, Antonio Bradley died on Saturday, June 18, three days after being granted compassionate release to Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx for injuries sustained in an attempted suicide on the day of his Friday, June 10, court appearance for a felony firearm charge.
The young man used his sweatshirt as a noose and hanged himself in his cell.
At 1:30 a.m. on Monday, June 20, Abilan Carrasquillo, 39, was pronounced dead at the George R. Vierno Center (the same facility where Muhammad died). Carrasquillo also died from an apparent overdose.
The following day, on Tuesday, June 21, Albert Drye, 50, died in the Bellevue Hospital’s Prison Ward at 11:34 a.m.
While the DOC initially remained tight-lipped about the circumstances surrounding Drye’s death, Molina delivered his personal remarks and expressed his condolences to his family.
“Any death in custody is a tragedy, and it’s heartbreaking to hear about this individual’s passing,” Molina said in a statement. “Learning that a loved one died while incarcerated is not only heartbreaking, but also extremely traumatizing.” “Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone who knew and loved this person.”
Following Muhammad’s death, Molina stated, “These are very complex problems that have existed here for decades.” Over the last six months, we have been rebuilding this entire department.”
He hopes to address the issues by working to “dismantle” the complex system of the prison industrial complex.