Rikers Island detainee found dead in cell — facility’s second death in first 19 days of the new year

The Rikers Island jail complex.
The Rikers Island jail complex.
AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File

Rikers Island saw another detainee death on Friday — the second in-custody fatality on the city’s primary correctional facility in the first 19 days of 2024.

According to the Correction Department, the inmate — identified as Manuel Luna, 30 — was found unconscious and unresponsive in his cell at the George R. Vierno Center at about 8:47 p.m. on Jan. 19. The Vierno Center houses “detained and sentenced male adults,” the agency noted.

“Medical staff were notified and they responded to provide emergency medical care to the individual,” the Correction Department said in a statement. “Additional medical professionals responded and provided aid, but sadly, the individual was pronounced dead.”

The agency said it is notifying the federal monitor overseeing Rikers Island, as well as the Offices of State Attorney General Letitia James, the Board of Correction, the State Commission of Correction and the Office of the city’s Chief Medical Examiner. 

“On behalf of the New York City Department of Correction, we extend our deepest condolences to the loved ones of the deceased,” said Correction Commissioner Lynelle Maginley-Liddle in a statement. “We are conducting a full investigation into this tragic event.”

The agency also said it would conduct a full investigation into Luna’s death, and “cooperate with all outside investigative entities.”

Earlier this month, another detainee, identified as 43-year-old Chima Williams, died on Jan. 4 during a pickup basketball game at the Eric M. Taylor Center on Rikers Island. His death was the first reported fatality on Rikers in 2024.

Since January 2022, 28 people have died while in custody on Rikers Island — a startling number that has fueled calls for both the long-term closure of Rikers Island, as well as a federal takeover while it remains in operation.

Mayor Eric Adams has taken significant heat over his administration’s management of the notorious penal facility, with the federal monitor overseeing the jails dinging DOC for being uncooperative and opaque.

As a result, the city is facing the specter of a federal takeover of Rikers to ensure a safe and orderly environment for detainees and workers. Numerous politicians and advocates have been joined by the US Attorney’s office in Manhattan in calling for receivership, and last month, a federal judge held the city in contempt of court after a fire took place in a unit set aside for arsonists — and nobody at Rikers bothered to notify the monitor.

City law requires that Rikers must be closed and replaced with four new “borough-based jails” by 2027; while Mayor Adams has committed to close Rikers, he has cast doubt on the 2027 timeline: the jail population continues to grow from COVID-era lows, while the new jails will likely not be complete for years after the deadline.
Nevertheless, Darren Mack, co-director of the Freedom Agenda, which has been lobbying for Rikers’ immediate closure — said Luna’s death was yet another sign that the facility’s days of holding incarcerated individuals must be numbered.

“It’s a new year, but the same story. Rikers is a death camp,” Mack said in a statement. “It continues to kill our neighbors and leave more families devastated. Instead of continuing to send people there, the mayor needs to make the investments that will keep people safe: housing, mental health treatment, and other services to support people in our communities.”

Updated on Jan. 20 at 3:35 p.m.