Dashawn Carter apparently took his own life while imprisoned on Rikers Island on Saturday, which marked the latest in a series of deaths in the notorious prison this year — angering activists, and increasing the chances that the federal government could step in to take over the jail complex.
Four men have died this year on the island, and a new damning report details the alleged inhumane conditions in the facility, while highlighting the city’s Department of Corrections’ failure to prevent deaths and improve the horrid circumstances that inmates are forced to live in.
The report, released on May 9, claims that employees of the prison have systematically failed to supervise inmates, while denying basic health care to those who needed it.
Sitting off the off the shores of Queens and the south Bronx, Rikers Island has become a symbol for America’s brutal prison conditions, with various news outlets exposing problematic “fight nights” that pit inmates in physical altercations against one another for entertainment, as well as the lack of protection for others in the imprisoned population.
Monday’s report, however, details the extent to which the prison lacks proper medical resources and employee supervision to treat any health concerns that may arise.
Carter, 25, entered the jail as an unhoused person on Thursday, and was found dead in his cell on Saturday, the city’s medical examiner said. A doctor with the Board of Corrections, Robert Cohen, blamed the death on a lack of supervision from guards and medical personnel — alluding to the lack of much-needed resources in the complex.
“Because there were no officers available on the floor and in the facility, emergency medical care was not provided to people who needed emergency medical care,” said Cohen in the report.
Yet, Carter’s death did not come as a surprise to many, who have seen a troublingly-high death toll on Rikers over the past few years — including in 2021, when 16 inmates died in the facility (Carter’s death came after the recent report had been finalized).
Unfortunately, the problem does not seem to be getting better, as three other imprisoned persons died on the island, in addition to Carter, through the first 5 months of this year. And the recorded deaths are often not by suicide.
Herman Diaz, 58, who was housed in a dormitory-style unit in the prison complex, choked on an orange in March 2022. While his fellow inmates attempted to revive him, the prison provided no help, as a jail employee had been overseeing the unit where Diaz was, but that worker was not allowed to intervene. The employee’s calls to official medical personnel were too late, and Diaz died before they arrived.
In the cases of 48-year-old George Pagan and 28-year-old Tarz Youngblood, the report notes that jail officials failed to conduct basic safety searches.
Pagan died of sepsis, which was exacerbated by his H.I.V.-positive status. Meanwhile, Youngblood died in a nearby housing cell — while, despite their medical conditions, jail officials did not check on either man in the 3 hours leading up to their ultimate demise. That was in violation of the requirement that employees make “check-in” rounds every 30 minutes, according to the report.
“Mr. Pagan’s visibly poor medical state was described by people in custody who resided in the same area,” the report said. “He regularly urinated, defecated, and vomited on himself. He was weak, barely ate, and spent his days laying on his bed or the floor. People in custody brought him food and drink.”
The horrid deaths of the 4 men has prompted new calls to reform the notorious prison. It also gave a boost to the possibility of a federal takeover of the jail.
For more coverage of Rikers Island, head to amNY.com.
A United States Judge last month ordered the city to provide a new plan for overhauling the prison complex, which is due in the coming days. Without a satisfactory proposal, the judge may order the jail to be placed under federal authority, which prosecutors asked for last month.
For his part, Mayor Eric Adams has placed his trust in DOC Commissioner Louis Molina, saying that he and his prison head needed time to solve the decades-in-the-making problems that have led Rikers Island to become the brutal complex that it is today.
“Since Commissioner Molina assumed office, in conjunction with the federal monitor, we’ve seen reductions in use of force and assaults on staff, increased searches for weapons and contraband, and sick leave that has dropped to levels not seen since before last summer’s horrendous shortages,” Hizzoner said in the statement.
“Fixing Rikers is critically important, a moral imperative, and we need to get it right. But to do that, we need the opportunity to implement our plan. These are generational challenges, deeply ingrained, and no administration can solve them in less than four months. We look forward to continuing our close collaboration with the federal monitor and all other stakeholders.”
Zachary Katznelson, the policy director for A More Just NYC, who serves on the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, testified at a public hearing on Tuesday, and called for serious action to be taken to remedy the situation on Rikers.
“God-willing, that will be the last such report necessary,” he said.
Among his demands was reducing the overall population of Rikers Island, which, he says, will allow staff members to better oversee the population in the prison, and provide the necessary care that is required to keep inmates safe.
“I urge each of you individually and collectively to once again publicly call for there to be fewer people at Rikers,” he said. “Safely and swiftly reducing the number of people at Rikers will allow DOC to close jails and consolidate operations. Fewer operating jails will mean fewer officers are needed on any given shift.”
“How else will DOC possibly cover all the housing areas, let alone ensure there are enough escort officers to get people to medical appointments, the courts, etc?”