Third Jail Death in 2024 Brings New York City’s Total to 31 Under Mayor Adams

The steady stream of deaths continues as courts deliberate a federal takeover of NYC jails.
Sam McCann Senior Writer // Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Mar 28, 2024

Roy Savage died at Bellevue Hospital on March 22 while in New York City Department of Correction (DOC) custody. He is the third person to die during their incarceration in, or immediately following their release from, the city’s dangerous jails this year, and the 31st since Eric Adams assumed office on January 1, 2022.

The steady stream of deaths underlines the city’s failure to provide basic safety in its jails. The federal government agrees with that assessment: in November 2023, Manhattan’s top federal prosecutor asked a judge to strip the Adams administration of control of Rikers Island.

The judge is considering the move following a series of grim and frustrated reports from the federal monitor overseeing the city’s DOC. Since 2015, DOC has operated under a consent decree issued because of its systemic dysfunction. The agreement requires the agency to implement a series of reforms to address its culture of violence and neglect.

To date, it has failed to do so. Beyond the 31 deaths, the federal monitor notes that Rikers correctional officers (COs) use violence at alarming rates compared to other jurisdictions, and DOC officials under Adams operate with a lack of transparency and cooperation. In October 2023, the monitor concluded that hope for meaningful change within DOC has significantly diminished and that “the jails remain dangerous and unsafe, characterized by a pervasive, imminent risk of harm to both people in custody and staff.”

Those 31 deaths likely only tell a partial story. Both New York City Comptroller Brad Lander and the federal monitor have speculated that there may be even more in-custody deaths than DOC has reported. A report from the summer of 2023 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.

These mounting deaths reveal a continued failure by the DOC to grapple with the conditions that have killed jailed New Yorkers at alarming rates since 2021. That year, hellish conditions driven by staff absenteeism and overreliance on incarceration saw people held in shower stalls smeared with feces, suffering from negligent medical care, forced to wait in dangerously crowded intake facilities, and more. The federal monitor called 2021 “the most dangerous“ year since it assumed supervision—only to see 2022 prove more deadly and the stream of deaths continue in 2023.

Despite the city’s existing commitment to reduce the jail population and close Rikers by 2027, the jail population has 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 2022, 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.

Take Action: Abuses on Rikers Island must end! Sign the petition now.


Who has died on Rikers since 2022?

  • Tarz Youngblood, 38, was a father of three. Corrections officers were not monitoring the location where he was held in the hours before he died on February 27, 2022. Four incarcerated people carried him out of the cell where he was found unconscious. They tried to administer aid, but he did not survive. Taylor Garzone, a forensic social worker with New York County Defender Services, described Youngblood as “a kind and well-intentioned man.”
  • George Pagan, 49, was held on Rikers Island because he could not pay bail of $1,006. He was clearly ill, with reports showing that he barely ate and spent his days lying in his bed or on the floor. During the six days before his death on March 17, 2022, he was not brought to nine scheduled medical appointments, nor was he given the medicine he was prescribed.
  • Herman Diaz, 52, died on March 18, 2022, after choking on an orange. Fellow incarcerated people tried to offer aid but were unable to do the Heimlich maneuver. They called for help, but no corrections officers arrived. “I want to know how long did it take for anyone with DOC to get to my brother to help him, said his brother, Eddie Diaz. “Why wasn’t a CO there?”
  • Dashawn Carter, 25, died by suicide on May 7, 2022, after being transferred from a psychiatric hospital directly to general population housing on Rikers Island.
  • Mary Yehudah, 31, was in custody at the Rose M. Singer facility on Rikers Island when she died on May 18, 2022, of complications related to diabetes. Her family’s attorney states that she complained of heart palpitations and shortness of breath but did not receive appropriate medical treatment, and her condition could have been easily treated if the jail had done the required medical tests. She had been awaiting trial for nearly three months when she died. “We ask that you continually keep us in your prayers,” wrote her sister.
  • Emmanuel Sullivan, 20, was found dead in his bed in a cell on Rikers Island on May 28, 2022. He had been awaiting trial for four months and had been due to appear in court the week after he died. “Enough is enough. I am so tired and devastated to hear about the death of Emmanuel Sullivan. It is beyond heartbreaking that we continue to hear about the many fully preventable deaths that have and continue to happen on Rikers Island,” said Victor Pate, who was formerly incarcerated on Rikers Island and is now co-director of the #HALTSolitary Campaign.
  • Antonio Bradley, 28, died by suicide at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx on June 18, 2022, after sustaining his injuries in a courthouse cell. Three days before he died, he had been granted compassionate release.
  • Anibal Carrasquillo, 39, was pronounced dead on June 20, 2022, in the George R. Vierno Center of Rikers Island. He had complained of chest pain, but corrections officers ignored him, according to incarcerated people who spoke to the Board of Correction.
  • Albert Drye, 52, passed away in DOC custody at Bellevue Prison Hospital Ward on June 21, 2022, after having been held in Eric M. Taylor Center on Rikers Island. He was sent to the hospital six days after entering the jail. “We again call on elected officials, prosecutors, the courts, and other stakeholders to facilitate the decarceration of local jails before another New Yorker has to spend their final moments confined to a cage in a facility grappling with a full-fledged humanitarian crisis,” wrote the Legal Aid Society, which represented Drye.
  • Elijah Muhammad, 31, died in custody on Rikers Island on July 10, 2022, prompting the immediate firing of a corrections officer who was involved in the incident. He had been receiving treatment for an unspecified mental illness and, in the days before he died, had spent more than 32 hours in isolation—a violation of department rules. While in isolation, he did not have a bed or access to medical care.
  • Michael Lopez, 34, died on July 15, 2022, inside a mental observation unit on Rikers Island. He had been hospitalized on multiple occasions due to mental illness. The Legal Aid Society, which represented him, issued a statement following his death that said he had been caged for crimes of poverty: “Had Mr. Lopez been spared detention, he would have been connected to programming, and he would be alive today.”
  • Ricardo Cruciani, 68, died by suicide on Rikers Island on August 15, 2022. He had been at the jail complex since July 29. His attorney and the judge presiding over his trial had requested that he be placed on suicide watch.
  • Michael Nieves, 40, was removed from life support on August 30, 2022, one week after attempting suicide. He was being held in an intensive care psychiatric housing unit due to serious mental illness. A captain and two officers were suspended after video footage revealed that they failed to respond to his injuries for at least 10 minutes.
  • Kevin Bryan, 35, died on Rikers Island, where he had been held on $5,003 bail. He was pronounced dead in the early morning of September 14, 2022.
  • Gregory Acevedo, 48, died after jumping from the Vernon Bain Center on September 20, 2022. The barge in the East River, colloquially known as “The Boat,” has been used to imprison people since 1992, despite complaints of inhumane conditions that resemble those of a slave ship. “Once again, their system failed,” said Warren Silverman, Acevedo’s attorney.
  • Elmore Robert Pondexter, 59, suffered cardiac arrest on Rikers Island on September 18, 2022. He was granted compassionate release and died at Bellevue Hospital. Though his survivors say they are grateful he was released, they want the DOC to be held accountable for his treatment. “At first we were happy he died with dignity, and we knew he wouldn’t die a prisoner,” Aquandra Morris, one of Pondexter’s three children, told the New York Times. “But, then I thought about it—something is not right. They are trying to relinquish their responsibility.”
  • Erick Tavira, 28, died on Rikers Island on October 22, 2022. He had been living in a homeless shelter when he was arrested and was held on $20,000 bail. “Mr. Tavira’s case underscores the inevitable outcome when incarceration is used in lieu of treatment,” said the Legal Aid Society in a statement. “Had Mr. Tavira had access to programming, today’s tragedy could have been completely avoided.”
  • Gilberto Garcia, 26, died on Rikers Island almost three years to the day that he was first sent there to await trial. He was pronounced dead at the Anna M. Kross Center at 12:50 p.m. ET on October 31, 2022.
  • Edgardo Mejias, 39, died on December 11, 2022, while jailed at the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers Island. During the two months he was incarcerated, he complained that he wasn’t getting proper medical treatment for his asthma, according to his attorney.
  • Marvin Pines, 65, was found dead in the shower area of Rikers Island after having a seizure on February 4, 2023. 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, 2023, two days after the incident.
  • Joshua Valles, 31, died on May 27, 2023. 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 bail reform rollbacks in 2022, which made some nonviolent charges, like the ones he faced, bail-eligible.
  • Felix Taveras, 40, died on July 4, 2023, 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 waited a further 15 minutes to bring Taveras to the clinic.
  • Ricky Howell, 60, died of cancer on July 6, 2023, 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, 2023. 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 on July 23, 2023, and pronounced dead shortly after. After Davis’s death, the DOC suspended the CO assigned to his 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 on August 22, 2023, and later pronounced dead.
  • Chima Williams, 43, collapsed on January 4, 2024, after playing basketball on New York City’s Rikers Island. After going into cardiac arrest, he was given an anti-overdose drug and CPR but could not be revived.
  • Manuel Luna was found unresponsive in his cell on January 19, 2024. The DOC said he received medical attention but was pronounced dead on the scene.

Learn how to directly contact your city council member and NYC Mayor Eric Adams and call for these abuses to end.

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