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Deadly year in Rikers with 19 deaths in DOC custody

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By: Tandy Lau via Amsterdam News

Edgardo Mejias is the 19th person to die in—or shortly after in—Department of Corrections (DOC) custody this year. The 39-year-old was pronounced dead at the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers Island this past Sunday, Dec. 11 at approximately 5 p.m. 

“Mr. Mejias’ passing fills our hearts with sadness, and we extend our heartfelt sympathies to all who held him dear as we recognize how hard it is to lose a loved one during the holidays,” said DOC Commissioner Louis A. Molina. “As with all deaths in custody, we will work with our sister agencies to ensure that this matter is thoroughly and completely investigated.”

Mejias entered DOC custody on Oct. 2, according to a department spokesperson. 

This past Tuesday, Dec. 13, a City Council hearing was held about Rikers Island by the Committee of Criminal Justice. Mejias’ medical history leading up to his death was questioned but DOC officials could not be disclosed due to HIPAA policies. 

“The progress is so remedial—it should shock all New Yorkers that such basic safeguards to health and safety were not already in place,” said Committee on Criminal Justice Chair Carlina Rivera during the hearing. “The reports of conditions in Rikers that were described in today’s hearing are clear evidence that closing Rikers as planned is the only path forward. We cannot accept that the city’s jail population will inevitably increase if nothing changes.”

In Molina’s testimony, more than 500 staff members were suspended this year. Another 180 were terminated. During the hearing, Rivera revealed reports of other detainees finding Mejias before his death during a suspected overdose. Molina and other DOC representatives did not confirm but said Mejias was in “fully-staffed” dorm housing where he was found and assisted by others held at the facility. 

A five-year Rikers closure status report in October by The Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform found 61% of detainees are Black and 89% are awaiting pre-trial; 51% need mental health treatment. And the average detention is 286 days before pre-trial, with 533 people at the time of publishing in Rikers held for over two years. 

“Edgardo [Mejias] was delivered a death sentence without a trial,” said Freedom Agenda Co-Director Darren Mack. “What will it take for judges, prosecutors and police to stop churning people through this death trap, and for the mayor to stop encouraging them? 

“New Yorkers know this is not normal, and we know we don’t need to keep sending people to a death camp to keep our city safe. Now is the time to invest in housing, treatment and everything we know creates safety, and stop sending people to Rikers to die.”

For Human Rights Day last week, Freedom Agenda projected messages demanding Mayor Eric Adams and other city officials to intervene with closing the jail.

Also this past Tuesday was a rally at City Hall for Mejias’ death held by community activists as a followup to a movement last month based on a federal hearing on whether city jails would end up in the hands of federal receivership. A District Court Judge ultimately failed to consider the motion, much to the disappointment of many decarceration advocates. 

Organizers say the main demand this time is for more action by Mayor Eric Adams to reduce the jail’s population, both in preparation for Rikers’ closure in 2027 and in general to prevent extraneous detention of New Yorkers before trial.

“I spent part of my childhood growing up in Brownsville,” said Katal Center Leader Henry Robinson at the rally. “I saw the devastating impact that mass incarceration had on my community. The devastating impact it had on my family when I was incarcerated. The mayor is from Brownsville and he knows that our communities need care. 

“Yet he continues to send more Black and brown people to Rikers. Nineteen people have died in the city’s jails. This is unacceptable. Mayor Adams, you need to shut down Rikers and invest in our youth.”

As it stands, four borough-based jails are slated to replace Rikers and can hold no more than a combined 3,300 detainees—the limited space means an opportunity for curbing mass incarceration in New York City. Last month, the city tallied 5,846 held in New York City jails. 

Katal Center Senior Community Organizer Melanie Dominguez says it’s up to Adams to ensure the new jails don’t follow the same mistakes as Rikers.

“He’s the one that needs to be thinking through and his team needs to be thinking through about how things can be different,” she said. “Just going back to the problems at Rikers Island, it can offer lessons to be learned. And this makes me think of the [City Council] hearing, they discussed the fact that people don’t have access to mental health services, people don’t have access to proper medical care, they’re not being taken care of, they’re not being taken to get medical care, because correctional officers have been not showing up for work.”

Dominguez also mentioned discussions of Int. 806 during the hearing. The floated bill would establish borough-based jail review teams to comb over cases that can be quickly wrapped up or don’t require detaining the person charged. She added that efforts will continue to focus pressure upon Adams to act, but other New Yorkers are welcomed to chip in. 

“He’s always been our biggest target and will continue to be,” said Dominguez. “But the only way we’re going to be able to hold him accountable is through community power. And so it’s going to be really, really critical, critical for communities to come out, show out and be present at these rallies, be present in your conversations of what is needed, what it is that they’re concerned about.”

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

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