When William Brown, 55, died on Dec. 14, he was the 15th inmate in 2021 to lose his life at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex, which was already plagued by years of neglect but spiraled into chaos during the covid-19 pandemic with an increase in violence and staff absences.
This is the most deaths in a year at the troubled jail since 2016, when 15 inmates also died.
What happened to the 15 men who died at Rikers Island Prison In 2021? Here are five things to know.
1. About Rikers
Rikers is a complex of jails and not a prison. Unlike a prison, where people are incarcerated for serious crimes, most people locked up in Rikers are awaiting trial or convicted of minor crimes. A small number of inmates are serving short sentences for misdemeanors or parole violations. The vast majority at Rikers are awaiting trial, New York Magazine reported. Ninety percent of those at Rikers are Black or brown.
2. Spike in deaths at Rikers
There were seven inmate deaths in 2020, three in 2019, eight in 2018 and six in 2017, according to the Department of Corrections. In 2021, the last count was 15, NBC New York reported.
3. Conditions out of control
This year, officials at Rikers dealt with a number of crises — the covid-19 outbreak, loss of staff, overcrowding of those in custody. In January, its population rose to more than 5,000 — an increase of more than 25 percent from the spring of 2020, NBC News reported.
4. Suicides increased
Rikers went two years without a suicide, but in 2021 there were multiple suicides.
5. Who they are, when and how they died
The 15 men who died at Rikers this year were not nameless or faceless. They all had stories and lives before being sent to Rikers, where they died.
- Jan. 22: Wilson Diaz-Guzman, 30. Diaz-Guzman had arrived on Rikers Island on Jan. 17 to await trial on a charge of sexual assault against a child. Once at Rikers, he expressed thoughts of killing himself more than once. On the fifth day, Diaz-Guzman hanged himself from a sprinkler head, New York Magazine reported.
- March 2: Tomas Carlo Camacho, 48. Camacho arrived at Rikers in August 2020 after assaulting a mental health clinician. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, he spent five weeks in a prison psych ward before being sent back to Rikers in early 2021. On March 2, Camacho was seen in the bathroom, dizzy and disoriented after falling and hitting his head. Another inmate reported to an officer that Camacho needed medical attention. But Camacho was left in a holding pen for seven to eight hours. Somehow, Camacho got his head caught in the slot of the door. When found, Camacho’s heart had stopped, New York Magazine reported. Medical personnel were able to get his heart beating again and he was transferred him to a hospital. His brain, however, had been deprived of oxygen for too long and he was taken off life support. The medical examiner later gave the cause of death as complications following cardiac arrest. He categorized it as a suicide.
- March 19: Javier Velasco, 37. Velasco was arrested again for leaving threatening messages on his ex-wife’s phone. On March 5, in custody, he threatened suicide. On March 16, Velasco tried to hang himself but was cut down. He was put on suicide watch for 24 hours, after which he succeeded in his next suicide attempt.
- April 19: Thomas Earl Braunson III, 35. When he arrived at Rikers, he was put in an overcrowded intake pen meant to hold people for 24 hours max. Braunson was there for three days. “The men weren’t fed; they weren’t given medication. Some were dope sick. They tried to sleep, taking turns lying on the floor amid the vomit,” New York Magazine reported. When Braunson was finally transferred, it is assumed he must have gotten the cocktail of heroin, fentanyl, and PCP that ultimately killed him.
- April 30: Richard Blake, 45. Police stopped a car he was riding in and found a crack pipe. Blake was on parole and he ended up in jail. On April 28, Blake called his family frantic about not feeling well. Two days later his cellmate requested medical attention for Blake. None was given even though Blake was unconscious. When Blake stopped breathing, another officer attempted CPR. When the medical staff arrived, a full hour later, they had forgotten the oxygen, New York Magazine reported. Blake died.
- June 10: Jose Mejia Martinez, 34. Martha Martinez still doesn’t know exactly what happened to her son, who was an addict. She just knows Rikers told her he had died.
- June 30: Robert Jackson, 42. In October 2020, Jackson was arrested on burglary charges for stealing packages. Early on June 30, Jackson had trouble breathing but due to staff shortages, there was no officer in his unit that morning. That evening, another officer noticed Jackson’s health struggles. Still, a medical team didn’t arrive until 90 minutes later and Jackson was unresponsive. The medical examiner ruled that heart disease caused Jackson’s death.
- Aug. 10: Brandon Rodriguez, 25. In August, Rodriguez, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, was arrested on domestic-violence charges. At Rikers, Rodriguez was attacked several times. He was sent to an isolated area of the jail and locked in a cramped shower cell. He wrapped his T-shirt around his neck and committed suicide.
- Aug. 30: Segundo Guallpa, 58. After a fight with his wife, he spent 12 days locked up. Around 1:30 a.m. on Aug. 30, an officer found him dead, another suspected suicide.
- Sept. 7: Esias Johnson, 24. Johnson had been diagnosed over the years with Asperger’s syndrome, autism, and ADHD. He was arrested for chasing a man into a bank with a syringe, threatening to inject him with HIV. In his final days at Rikers, Johnson complained of stomach pains. Even though he requested medical attention, he was denied several times. On Sept. 7, Johnson was found dead. The preliminary cause of death was a lethal dose of methadone. According to his parents, Johnson, who was not an addict, should not have been given methadone. For someone not addicted to opioids, methadone can be lethal, New York Magazine reported.
- Sept. 19: Isa Abdul-Karim, 41. While at Rikers, Abdul-Karim contracted covid. On his 32nd day at Rikers, he died from a pulmonary embolism linked to covid.
- Sept. 22: Stephan Khadu, 24. In December 2019, Khadu was arrested in a gang-conspiracy case. On Sept. 21, during a phone call, Khadu told his girlfriend he wasn’t feeling well. He had a seizure the next morning. It took an hour and 41 minutes for the medical team to arrive. The medical examiner found that Khadu died from lymphocytic meningitis. If properly treated, it is rarely fatal.
- Oct. 15: Victor Mercado, 64. Mercado had been held on weapons charges since July after being unable to pay the $100,000 bail. He was overweight and used a wheelchair, making him vulnerable to covid 19. It killed him.
- Dec. 10: Malcolm Boatwright, 28. Boatwright died after experiencing a medical issue, the city’s Department of Corrections said. Boatwright had been at the jail since Nov. 12, following his arrest on sexual abuse charges, NBC New York reported.
- Dec. 14: William Brown, 55. William was in custody when he was found to be in medical distress, according to the NYC Department of Correction (NYC DOC). Although CPR was administered, Brown was pronounced dead, NBC News reported. The cause of death is under investigation.
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New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail complex, troubled by years of neglect, has spiraled into turmoil during the coronavirus pandemic. In this March 16, 2011 file photo, a corrections official watches Rikers inmates working the morning shift. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)