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

Sam McCann Senior Writer
Oct 06, 2023

In the early hours of October 5, Manish Kunwar, 27, died on Rikers Island. He is the ninth person to die during their incarceration in or immediately following their release from New York City’s dangerous jails this year, and the 28th since Mayor Eric Adams assumed office last January.

Kunwar died after seven days of incarceration on Rikers Island. Prior to his incarceration, he spent about five months in a psychiatric treatment facility. He died in the Eric M. Taylor Center on Rikers Island, which holds new jail admissions; it is unclear if the city’s Department of Correction (DOC) provided additional supervision because of his recent history of mental health treatment.

This latest tragedy comes the same day as another scathing report from the federal monitor charged with overseeing DOC’s compliance with a court-approved mandate to improve jail conditions. The report notes a 30 percent rise in stabbings and slashings in the past two months, as compared to last year, as well as a continued failure on the part of DOC staff to urgently respond to incidents of self-harm. These and other patterns, according to the report, show that “reform is falling even further out of reach.”

These findings build on the federal monitor’s previous reports. In one released earlier this year, the monitor urged a federal judge to consider holding the city and DOC in contempt for the ongoing failure to address jail conditions. The monitor said that hope for “meaningful change” in DOC “has significantly diminished.” That report also noted that Rikers correctional officers (COs) use force at alarming rates, citing 400 known head strikes since 2022; in comparison, throughout the same year, Los Angeles County jails used head strikes 52 times.

The persistent failures could lead to a change in control of Rikers. This summer, Judge Laura Taylor Swain, chief judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, agreed to hear arguments to strip the city of control of Rikers and turn it over to a federal receiver. The first legal filing in that process is due in November.

The ongoing deaths in DOC custody underline the need for federal intervention. Besides Kunwar, at least eight other people have either died while incarcerated on Rikers Island, or immediately following their technical release this year:

  • Marvin Pines, 65, was found dead in the shower area of Rikers Island after having a seizure on February 4. 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.
  • 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.
  • Joshua Valles, 31, died on May 27. DOC initially said he died from a heart attack, but an autopsy showed a fractured skull. Valles would not have been incarcerated at all prior to 2022 bail rollbacks, which made some nonviolent charges, like the ones he faced, bail-eligible.
  • Felix Taveras, 40, died on July 4 after experiencing a medical emergency while held in DOC custody on Rikers Island. DOC has released extremely limited information about his death, but said in a statement that its preliminary investigation identified “procedural violations” and that it would issue suspensions. According to one report, those violations involve staff neglect. A DOC captain is “under scrutiny” for not touring the area before Taveras’s medical emergency. DOC is also reviewing the actions of a responding CO who first waited 20 minutes to notify medical personnel and then a further 15 minutes to bring Taveras to the clinic.
  • Ricky Howell, 60, died on July 6 of cancer while held in DOC custody in Bellevue Hospital’s jail ward. The Legal Aid Society, which represented Howell, decried the Staten Island judge and prosecutors who insisted on jailing Howell while he faced a terminal cancer diagnosis. Legal Aid previously told the court that a healthcare facility was ready to accept Howell and provide “proper care for end-of-life patients,” but New York Supreme Court Judge Lisa Grey chose instead to send Howell to jail.
  • William Johnstone, 47, died on Rikers Island on July 15. He was found unresponsive in his cell that afternoon and was pronounced dead two hours later. Johnstone was held on Rikers Island because he could not afford the bail the judge set in his case.
  • Curtis Davis, 44, was found unresponsive in his cell on Rikers Island and pronounced dead shortly after. After Davis’s death, the DOC suspended the CO assigned to Davis’s housing unit. The CO allegedly reported to the area and signed off on their visit but did not actually tour the unit.
  • Donny Ubiera, 33, was found unresponsive in a mental observation unit on Rikers Island and later pronounced dead.

Those are just the deaths DOC has publicly acknowledged. Both New York City Comptroller Brad Lander and the federal monitor have speculated that there may be more in-custody deaths than DOC has reported. Yet, following Valles’s death in May, DOC announced that it would no longer report the deaths of incarcerated people in its custody to the media. A report this summer found evidence that DOC has only reported to the public or press 68 of the at least 120 deaths that have occurred on its watch since 2014.

Some of those deaths have gone unreported because of the department’s alleged use of “compassionate releases” and “medical releases” as a way to reduce its in-custody death count when someone is about to die. DOC has claimed that deaths that occur after these types of releases do not need to be reported to oversight agencies. This practice not only stymies public attention, but also prevents oversight agencies from investigating the deaths, as DOC does not even share records of people who die after release with its own investigative division.

These mounting deaths mark a continued failure to grapple with the conditions that have killed jailed New Yorkers at alarming rates since 2021. The federal monitor called 2021 "the most dangerous" year since it assumed supervision—only to see 2022 prove more deadly. Hellish conditions persist across DOC facilities, with 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 and close Rikers by 2027, the jail population has actually grown by 14 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 are steps our leaders can take to stop the deaths in city jails:

  • 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.
  • Turn over control of city jails to the federal receiver. After years of mismanagement marked by mass absenteeism, failing infrastructure, and dozens of deaths, Rikers needs to be taken over by the federal receiver, a court-appointed expert. "With the NYC Department of Correction's decision to stop notifying the press of deaths in detention—on the heels of a report from the federal monitor on serious incidents of harm and death that were only brought to light by external sources and the media—it is strikingly clear that the Adams administration cannot address the deadly crisis on Rikers," said Vera President Nick Turner. "Appointing a federal receiver is necessary."
  • 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 COs 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.