21 People Have Died in New York City Jails Since the Start of Last Year

Sam McCann Senior Writer
May 18, 2023

Rubu Zhao died this week after suffering a fatal fall while held on Rikers Island. He is the second person to die this year while held in the city’s dangerous and squalid jails, and the twenty-first since Mayor Eric Adams assumed office last January.

Initial reports allege that Zhao jumped from an upper floor of one of the jail facility’s mental health units and fractured his skull. These units are supposed to have increased security and medical supervision. Although Zhao’s cause of death had not been officially ruled on at the time of writing, the suicide rate in New York City Department of Correction (DOC) custody has exploded in recent years. Six people committed suicide in city jails in 2022, and another five in 2021, compared to five during the previous six years combined.

Last year, 19 people died in New York City jails. At the start of this year, Vera wrote that New York City could not afford another year of death in its jails. Since then, two more people have died in DOC custody.

  1. Marvin Pines, 65, was found in the shower area of Rikers Island after having a seizure. Prior to his death he told his attorney that he was concerned about his health in detention. Medical neglect is common on Rikers and throughout DOC facilities, with thousands of missed medical appointments every month.
  2. Rubu Zhao, 52, died of a fractured skull after reportedly falling from the upper floor of a Rikers Island mental health unit. He died on May 16, two days after the incident.

These mounting deaths point to a continued failure to grapple with the conditions that have killed jailed New Yorkers at alarming rates since 2021. The federal monitor charged with overseeing DOC called 2021 “the most dangerous” since it assumed supervision, only to see 2022 prove more deadly. Hellish conditions persist across DOC facilities: DOC staff absenteeism that remains higher than pre-pandemic levels, people held in shower stalls smeared with feces, negligent medical care, delays in assigning people housing, dangerously crowded intake facilities, and more.

Meanwhile, prosecutors continued to petition judges to crowd DOC facilities with yet more people, and judges were all too happy to oblige. Despite the city’s existing commitment to reduce the jail population in order to close Rikers by 2027, the jail population has actually grown by 11 percent since the start of 2022, with 87 percent of those in custody held pretrial—and presumed innocent—as they await their days in court. In December, Adams’s DOC Commissioner predicted that the city would not reduce the jail population enough to meet the target set as part of the agreement to close the jail complex.

Missing that target would be an abject failure by the city, which has a legal obligation to close Rikers on schedule and to immediately end the abhorrent and well-documented human rights abuses that take place in its facilities. Here’s how it can do so quickly and safely:

  • Reduce the jail population. The single best way to prevent another death on Rikers is to stop crowding people into its facilities, which have, once again, proven incapable of keeping them safe. Ending the overcrowding of Rikers is common sense, and Adams should work with district attorneys, public defenders, and judges to dramatically reduce pretrial detention rates and invest in alternatives to incarceration that are proven to build public safety .
  • Invest in supportive housing. The city’s supportive housing program for system-involved people has proven to reduce incarceration and promote stability, and affordable housing initiatives are a popular public safety strategy among city residents. It also costs the same to provide 13 people with supportive housing for a year as it does to hold someone on Rikers for that same amount of time.
  • Invest in mental health services. More than half of the people held on Rikers have mental health needs, yet mental health treatment in DOC facilities is wholly inadequate. The city should pair its decarceration efforts with an investment in community-based mental health treatment.
  • Right-size DOC. The most recent data shows that DOC employed more than 7,000 correctional officers in 2022, but its plan to close Rikers dictates a jail population of 3,300 or fewer, a size that requires far fewer jail staff. Closing Rikers presents the city with an opportunity to recalibrate its budget and workforce in a way that serves New Yorkers. That means fixing the staff management issues that have plagued DOC so that it can keep jails safe with an adequate number of staff. The city should then provide paths to transition excess staff to other opportunities and create better-paying employment opportunities for New Yorkers without postsecondary degrees.

Learn how to reach out directly to your city council member and NYC Mayor Eric Adams and share your thoughts about these abuses.

Take Action: Abuses on Rikers Island must end!