City’s admission that it can’t care about Rikers inmates may propel lawsuits


Security camera footage tells a remarkable story: A man held on Rikers Island collapses and is transported to a medical clinic – not by the correctional officer outside his housing unit, but by other inmates. The man, Herman Diaz, 52, who had choked on a slice of orange, did not survive.

This week, Mr. Diaz’s family filed a lawsuit in Manhattan federal court seeking $20 million in damages. The lawsuit relies on reports and court documents created by the city itself over the past two years that acknowledge that New York cannot adequately care for people in its jails. If the prosecution is successful, it could provide a roadmap for more than two dozen other families whose loved ones have died in custody.

The Rikers Island prison complex has been troubled for decades, but the coronavirus has added to the suffering of island residents, extending the stay of inmates as the justice system comes to a halt.

The virus hit correctional officers hard in 2020, infecting more than a thousand people and killing six. This has led to widespread absenteeism, with thousands of people not showing up for work each day. The quality of life of detainees continued to decline, threatening their access to food, water and medical care. Since January 2021, 27 people have died in police custody or shortly after release.

One was Mr. Diaz, whose death on March 18, like several others, was well documented by city agencies. In May, an oversight board that oversees prisons, the Board of Correction, released a report into the circumstances that led to the deaths of Mr. Diaz and two other inmates.

The report found that the officer stationed outside Mr. Diaz’s unit that day was not authorized to work with inmates and did not perform the Heimlich maneuver, leaving others who lived there transporting Mr. Diaz to the medical clinic. They passed other officers on their way to the clinic, but none provided medical assistance to Mr. Diaz. He died at 10:58 a.m., about 42 minutes after he began to choke.

Sonia Talavera, Mr. Diaz’s younger sister, was in her kitchen when she received a phone call informing her of his death.

“I just broke down,” she said. “I’m sure it could have been avoided. If they had the right equipment and the right people, they would have saved him. Many people are choking, and most people are saved.

In a report released this summer, City Comptroller Brad Lander noted that claims against the Department of Correction have declined after peaking in 2017, and payments in 2021 have fallen to $28.1 million. , the lowest in six years. But, Lander noted, a recent influx of department-related filings “could lead to higher payouts in years to come.”

In a statement, a spokesman for the city’s legal department, Nick Paolucci, said: “Any death in custody is tragic. The problems in the prisons have been going on for a long time and they cannot be solved overnight. He added that the city is committed to working diligently with a federal comptroller who oversees the prison system “to implement lasting reforms.”

The Board of Corrections report that includes Mr. Diaz is among several documents in which the city has documented how it struggles to care for those in its custody. In a separate court case brought on behalf of a class of inmates, the city acknowledged the circumstances in which it was unable to guarantee access to medical care.

Lawyers say these types of admissions will work in favor of plaintiffs like Mr. Diaz. Julia Kuan, a Manhattan civil rights and criminal defense attorney who sued the city on behalf of incarcerated people, said she provided substantial evidence.

“All of these confessions from the city are evidence that can be used in a trial,” she said. “It’s strong evidence of accountability.”

Indeed, attorneys for the family of another inmate who died at Rikers this year, Mary Yehudah, said they plan to include the city’s confession about lack of access to medical care. “It plays a lot into the claims we’re going to have,” said Ilyssa S. Fuchs, one of the attorneys.

“We can see many of the deaths we see at Rikers now, as they pile up one after another, as evidence of a systemic breakdown,” said Josh Kelner, who along with fellow attorney Neil Wollerstein, represents Mr. Diaz’s family.

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