Sudden, silent death: Rikers Island detainee found dead in cell a week after being detained

Rikers Island.
Rikers Island.
File photo

Another detainee at Rikers Island was found dead in his cell Thursday morning — the ninth such fatality in the city’s Correction Department’s custody this year, according to city officials. 

Authorities identified the deceased man as 27-year-old Manish Kunwar, who was found unresponsive in his cell at around 6:20 a.m. on Oct. 5. The cause of death remains under investigation by the city’s medical examiner, a DOC spokesperson said. 

Kunwar had been detained at the notorious jail complex for just 7 days; he had been initially arrested in Delaware, then extradited back to Queens for arraignment on Sept. 27 on charges of robbery and grand larceny.

According to the Daily News, Kunwar had been homeless, and plagued with mental illness and substance abuse issues.

He was slated to return to court for another hearing Thursday morning, just hours after he was found dead. 

Attorneys with the Legal Aid Society, who had been representing Kunwar during the legal proceedings, lamented his death, and offered their condolences to his family. 

“Manesh Kunwar was incarcerated at the Eric M. Taylor Center for only seven days before he died at the young age of 27. We extend our sincere condolences to Mr. Kunwar’s family, friends, and community at this extremely difficult time,” they said in a statement. “Mr. Kunwar’s case yet again highlights the harm of incarceration in lieu of treatment. If our client had access to the services he needed and stable housing, today’s tragedy could have been avoided. 

A fight over Rikers Island’s future

Demonstrators demand Rikers Island closure
New Yorkers marched through the rain in Lower Manhattan in August to demand the feds take control of Rikers Island as they charge Mayor Adams has “failed” to improve the penal island during his administration.File photo/Dean Moses

Kunwar is the 28th person to die inside New York City jails and prisons since Mayor Eric Adams took office at the beginning of 2022. 

“DOC’s continuous failure to ensure the well-being of those New Yorkers in its custody and inability to administer basic jail functions is unacceptable,” the Legal Aid Society said. “We call for immediate answers from DOC and for a full and transparent investigation into the circumstances that led to Mr. Kunwar’s tragic death.”

The last death in DOC custody occurred on Aug. 22, also at Rikers Island, when 33-year-old stabbing suspect Donny Ubiera was found dead in his cell. 

Rikers Island has become infamous for the porous conditions inside the facility over the years, leading to both a plan to close the jailhouse entirely, and a contentious court battle with the federal government looking to strip away control of the complex

The last hearing in the battle between the city and feds took place on Aug. 10, where Federal District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain punted on any final resolution of the matter, and scheduled another hearing for late next month. 

U.S. Attorney Damian Williams of the Southern District of New York, who is leading the charge to assume control over the facility, said before the last hearing that they “cannot wait any longer” for changes to be made. 

“Rikers Island has been in crisis for years. This is a collective failure with deep roots, spanning multiple mayoral administrations and DOC commissioners,” Williams said. “But after eight years of trying every tool in the toolkit, we cannot wait any longer for substantial progress to materialize.”

Separately, federal authorities on Wednesday arrested a Rikers Island correction officer on Wednesday for allegedly forging timesheets that claimed he was working, while he was actually on vacation. 

Following Kunwar’s death, advocates for closing down the complex, saying the overly-carceral nature of the jail does not aid in the cause of public safety. 

“Rikers Island continues to kill our neighbors and traumatize our communities and somehow Mayor Adams thinks this is a path we should continue on? Every person who truly cares about justice and safety for our City knows what needs to happen – we need to invest in housing, mental health treatment, and other services to support people in our communities, improve safety, and keep people out of Rikers. And we have to close that death camp down quickly,” said Freedom Agenda Co-Director Darren Mack in a statement.