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First Rikers detainee dies in 2023

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By: Tandy Lau via Amsterdam News

Marvin Pines is the first person to die in Department of Corrections (DOC) custody this year. The 65-year-old was pronounced dead at the North Infirmary Command (NIC) on Rikers Island this past Saturday, Feb. 4, at around 6:18 a.m.

“Any death in custody is a tragedy,” said DOC Commissioner Louis Molina. “We sincerely send our deepest condolences and sympathy to Mr. Pines’s family and loved ones. As with all deaths in custody, we are working with our partner agencies to conduct a full investigation.”

Pines entered DOC custody last August, according to a department spokesperson. His attorney Javier Damien could not be reached by the Amsterdam News by press timebut reportedly said his client suffered from seizures. The NIC typically holds those “with acute medical conditions and require infirmary care, or [who] have a disability that requires housing that is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act” in such accommodations, according to the city’s website. 

And while the New York City jail annual death count reset last month, last year’s high total is still fresh in the minds of advocates like Melanie Dominguez, a senior community organizer for the Katal Center.

“In 2022, Adams’s first year as the mayor, 19 people passed away on Rikers Island,” she said last Friday. “And this is the most since 2013, when the jail population was twice as large and violence on Rikers has escalated to record levels. What’s worse is we started off the new year and vulnerable populations are increasingly under threat.”

Dominguez references the gutting of the Rikers’ LGBTQ+ Affairs Unit, investigated recently by The City. A hearing on the treatment of gender-expansive individuals in DOC custody was held on Jan. 25, with Molina admitting to understaffing concerns being reported in the investigation. Shéár Avory, a New Pride Agenda organizer who sits on the city’s Board of Corrections TGNCNBI (transgender, gender non-conforming, non-binary, and intersex) taskforce, said the unit was created to improve safety for queer and trans detainees.

“Rikers Island has proven time and time again to not be capable or adequate to address these issues and to meet the needs of the trans community or anyone who falls through the cracks of marginalization and so closing Rikers is a top line priority,” they said. “But we also must address the issues impacting folks on the islands until Rikers closes.”

A new calendar year also means another year closer to the upcoming, legally mandated closure of Rikers Island in 2027. Yet there is still a ways to go in reducing the jail’s population to the 3,300 detainees capped for the upcoming move to borough-based jails. 

At another City Council hearing this past December, Molina said an internal forecast could see a rise of up to 7,000 detainees this year and doubted a pathway to 3,300 by 2027. Mayor Eric Adams reportedly referred to a “Plan B” when pressed about these comments last year, but recently promised to fulfill the legal responsibility—with the caveat that he won’t “do anything that’s going to impact public safety.”

“He needs to take into consideration investing into our communities and addressing the root problems of what is going on and how it correlates with crimes,” said Dominguez. “One of the things that needs to be done is truly investing in housing, healthcare, education and jobs.”

During Adams’s State of the City address on Jan. 26, elected officials and Campaign to Close Rikers proponents rallied outside to renew pressure to close the facility. 

“City Council has charted a path forward, and we have the tools needed to responsibly decarcerate and build a more fair criminal legal system and safer communities,” said Council Committee on Criminal Justice Chair Carlina Rivera at the rally. 

“This city is failing our people, and I stand in solidarity with the advocates from all over New York and this nation as we reject anything but a clear plan to close Rikers once and for all,” added Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso. 

Another rally from Campaign to Close Rikers advocates will be held at City Hall today, Feb. 9, over Pines’s death. 
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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