A Bronx man who had been detained at Rikers Island died on Friday, the same day a judge granted him an emergency conditional release, his attorney said Saturday. His death, the 13th this year in the city's jails, comes as advocates continue to sound the alarm on dangerous conditions at the jail complex.
Victor Mercado, 64, died at Elmhurst Hospital after being held at the Rikers infirmary from the time he was detained in the summer, his attorney, James A. Kilduff, said. Kilduff said Mercado had contracted COVID-19 while inside. That claim was corroborated by a medical staffer at Rikers, who requested anonymity so they can speak freely about Mercado.
“He got COVID while in jail, where rates continue to be higher than they are in the community, [and the] set up for viral spread is still very bad," said the staffer. "And then because he had relevant risk factors, he got very sick pretty quickly.”
Mercado, who lived in Mott Haven, was awaiting trial for a weapons charge since July, Kilduff said. Because a judge set bail at $100,000 in his first appearance, Mercado's family could not afford to get him out of jail to fight his case from the outside.
"It's a tragedy that that happened because he now is deceased only because his family couldn't afford to secure his release," Kilduff told Gothamist/WNYC.
Kilduff, who began representing Mercado after his initial court appearance, attempted to convince a judge to release Mercado, citing his health conditions. In September, Kilduff appeared before a judge virtually to convince them to have an in-person hearing to see firsthand Mercado's conditions as evidence for release. Mercado had been confined to a wheelchair and was considered overweight. It's unclear what kind of care Mercado had been receiving while staying at Rikers' infirmary unit.
"I didn't want to proceed virtually because I knew my client had health conditions that I think would be better represented if he appeared in person as opposed to being seen on a video monitor," Kilduff said.
The case was adjourned to September 27th. Kilduff, appearing in person with Mercado, argued that Mercado should be released on lower bail the family could afford, but was denied. Mercado was then sent back to the Rikers infirmary unit. Another medical staffer, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said conditions at the unit were dangerous.
“Most of the dorm areas in our infirmary have had COVID cases in the last month, so by definition our most vulnerable patients are clearly still at risk of being exposed,” the staffer said.
According to internal jail records reviewed by Gothamist/WNYC, as of October 7th there were two housing units in the infirmary which medical staff requested be put on lockdown due to COVID-19 exposure.
Several days later, Mercado was taken to Elmhurst Hospital for an unknown condition. During a phone call, Kilduff said Mercado did not sound well.
"He sounded kind of hoarse and he was like, 'Jim, you gotta help me. You got to get me out here,'" Kilduff recalled, later adding "he was frightened."
Kilduff called the Bronx District Attorney's Office explaining that an emergency compassionate release application should be filed on behalf of Mercado due to his condition. Kilduff was granted a noon hearing, and a judge approved the emergency compassionate release application. But it was too late.
"I got a call from [Mercado's] brother telling me that he had been notified that his brother had passed away," Kilduff said. The call came an hour after Mercado was granted an emergency release.
The city Department of Correction confirmed Mercado had died at Elmhurst Hospital for a condition that was considered medical in nature. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner will determine the cause of death.
“I am heartbroken to learn of Mr. Mercado’s passing, and we mourn his loss together as a city," DOC commissioner Vincent Schiraldi said in a statement. "While city officials are working quickly to identify the cause of death, our department is more committed than ever to improve safety across the jail system for staff and detainees.”
Mercado's death adds to growing turmoil happening inside Rikers, where bursts of violence have become commonplace. In a report released by a federal monitor this week, there were 11 stabbings or slashings at the city-operated jails in the first 12 days of October, and instances "extremely high" use-of-force was applied. In previous interviews with Gothamist/WNYC, detainees described instances where correction officers have fallen asleep on the job.
In the last month, two correction officers working in city jails have been charged with separate felony crimes, but were released on their own recognizance. One was accused of smuggling a razor blade in for a detainee, and the another for allegedly sexually assaulting a colleague.
Elected officials have since toured the facilities at the complex, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, who told a caller on the Brian Lehrer Show that he is "frustrated" over the slow speed in building four borough-based jails to replace Rikers. He also reaffirmed a pledge to drop the city's jail population to under 5,000.
"The larger reality of Rikers has been deeply troubled for decades, has never been the place that we want to be in," de Blasio said. "And this is something we've got to end once and for all. I wish it could be faster. I don't think, honestly, that's the core issue. The core issue right now is making sure that everything that happens after we leave office, that people stay on the current schedule and don't let it lag."
The headline to this article has been updated to accurately reflect that 13 detainees died in city jails, including Rikers.