City confirms 13th death of inmate on Rikers Island, this time from reported COVID-19 case

A jail on Rikers Island
A jail on Rikers Island.
Photo by Dean Moses

A Bronx man held at Rikers Island on a weapons charge became the 13th inmate of the beleaguered correctional facility to die this year, the city’s Department of Corrections announced Friday.

Victor Mercado, 64, died on the afternoon of Oct. 15 while hospitalized at Elmhurst Hospital after contracting COVID-19, The New York Times reported. Mercado had been incarcerated on Rikers Island on $100,000 bail since his July 21 arrest on multiple counts of weapons possession, according to court records.

The Corrections Department neither confirmed nor denied the New York Times report, though it indicated that Mercado’s in-custody death “preliminary appears to be medical in nature.” The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner will confirm Mercado’s cause of death.

“I am heartbroken to learn of Mr. Mercado’s passing, and we mourn his loss together as a city,” said Corrections Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi in a statement. “While city officials are working quickly to identify the cause of death, our department is more committed than ever to improve safety across the jail system for staff and detainees.”

A dozen other inmates on Rikers Island have died while in custody this year, including two in the span of a week in late September. The deaths, a number of which were apparent suicides, have helped fueled ongoing outrage from criminal justice advocates and elected officials who say the correctional facility is no longer safe for inmates and the corrections officers who work there, and want the jail closed.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has since enacted an emergency action plan to remedy unsafe conditions on Rikers Island, reduce the jail’s population and end a pattern of mass absenteeism among the corrections officers assigned there. On Wednesday, in an agreement reached with Governor Kathy Hochul, the city agreed to ship all remaining female and transgender inmates housed on the island’s Rose M. Singer Center to state-run facilities upstate. 

Nevertheless, criminal justice activists have called for the city to continue efforts to shutter Rikers Island by 2026, further decarcerate the island’s population and move forward with a long-term plan to move inmates into community-based jails.