By Tandy Lau
Gilberto Garcia is the 18th person to die in — or shortly after — Department of Corrections custody this year. The 26-year-old man was found dead in Rikers last Monday, Oct. 31. This news comes just nine days after 28-year-old Erick Tavira was also found dead in the notorious jail.
Last Thursday, Nov. 3, advocates held a rally at City Hall Park demanding Rikers’ closure: 18 hours for 18 deaths. And 18 mock Department of Corrections (DOC) body bags were lined up across the sidewalk. Organizers included Freedom Agenda, VOCAL-NY and the #HALTsolitary Campaign. In the late morning, they sounded off for a rally alongside elected officials.
“2022 has become one of the deadliest years in the history of NYC Department of Corrections,” said Freedom Agenda co-director Darren Mack. “The dysfunction, chronic staff absenteeism, and lack of accountability has intensified. Advocates have been sounding the alarm and calling for urgent action from the City.”
“This is not about safety,” said Councilmember Tiffany Cabán. “This is about interest. And so again, I am here to condemn every single actor that has played a role in this brutal, f–king crisis.”
“Eighteen people didn’t have to die this year,” said Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso. “Eighteen families didn’t have to face the deep, unimaginable grief of a loved one lost to our criminal legal system. The injustices and neglect at Rikers must and can be stopped.”
Beyond the closure of Rikers, organizers also demanded that Mayor Eric Adams delineate a public plan to stop sending New Yorkers to the city’s deadly jails, as well as apply his authority to decarcerate and protect current detainees.
This rally comes on the heels of another demonstration two weeks prior at Gracie Mansion, where religious leaders from the Interfaith Center of New York remembered those who died this year in DOC custody. The date, Oct. 17, marked the third year anniversary of the city council’s vote to close Rikers in favor of borough-based facilities.
“We believe that all people here in the United States are innocent, until proven guilty, and that no one should be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment,” said organizer the Rev. Dominique Atchinson. “There seems to be some cruel and unusual punishment, and punishment that is happening to people who have not actually been convicted of a crime.
“And so all of that together feels like a moral imperative. It feels like something that the faith community should be and has been involved in. And so we felt like it would be a great opportunity in that moment to remind the mayor and other elected officials involved of their commitment to close Rikers.”
The majority of detainees to die in DOC custody were not convicted of the crime they were held for. All, with the exception of neurologist Ricardo Cruciani—who is white––are identified as Black, brown, multiracial or “other” by The New York Times’ death tracker.
A recent, independent but officially mandated status report on the DOC’s action plan found length of stay as a key root to Rikers’ problems. Detainees are not exiting jails fast enough, leading to overstretched staff, housing units and mental health services, along with more frequent violent conflicts. Garcia, for example, was reportedly in DOC custody since before the pandemic.
Additionally, the report blamed a significant number of the 2022 deaths on inadequate security practices like securing doors or removing window coverings, along with other issues like unmanned posts and staff inaction. It also stated mental health issues among detainees are often walled off by “real and perceived” HIPAA barriers between the Departments of Health + Hospitals and Corrections.
An evening vigil was held during the 18-hour protest, to commemorate those who died in custody. One of the speakers, Lezandre Khadu—whose son Stephan died in Rikers in September 2021—told the Amsterdam News she wants those who pass by to envision themselves in her shoes.
“I just want every human being, especially those people there in the city in those buildings, and those politicians and the DAs, the judges — that can be you,” she said. “And that could be a family member, it could be a friend, it could be a neighbor. And until it happens close to them [and] if it happens, they’re gonna move to change something.”
In 2021, 16 people died in custody according to the Board of Corrections — 14 according to the DOC. Stephan Khadu was the 12th. This year, the unofficial death tallies have already exceeded either count — two detainees were given a compassionate release shortly before they died and excluded from city numbers. But a mother’s pain doesn’t reset with the calendar year.
“I am still in September 22, 2021,” said Khadu. “I’m still sitting here screaming despite what people see…for long I kept saying he died. He didn’t die. They killed him because they didn’t help him.
“Who helped this family, who helped the rest of the family? There’s no support to help us. I’ve got to figure that out on my own.”
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://bit.ly/amnews1