Fewer than 1 in 5 New York City correction officers took a mandated course on preventing suicide in the last year, according to data obtained by Gothamist through a Freedom of Information request, even as the rate of such deaths among incarcerated people on Rikers Island and other city jails accelerated to historic highs.
Eleven people held in custody by the city’s Department of Correction have died by suicide since last year, compared to just five in the preceding six years combined. During the four and a half years prior to November 2020, zero suicides were reported.
Despite the skyrocketing suicide rate, from Sept. 1, 2021, to Sept. 20 this year, 1,241 of the city’s nearly 7,000 uniformed correction staff members completed a required suicide prevention refresher course, according to correction department data.
“It’s reckless and negligent for prison staff to lack training in suicide prevention or handling detainees with mental illness,” said David Nieves, whose brother, Michael Nieves, died by suicide at a jail facility on Rikers Island in August. Michael Nieves suffered from severe mental illness, and two correction officers and a captain were suspended for their failures leading up to his death.
Detainees with mental illness can pose a threat to both themselves and other detainees or staff, and would therefore be better cared for in a mental health facility with trained staff, David Nieves wrote in an email.
“Until this problem is addressed, this pattern of neglect and abuse toward inmates with mental health issues will only continue,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Correction, Patrick Rocchio, blamed the lack of training on a staffing crisis, in which large numbers of officers called out sick en masse, leading to unsupervised units. That forced officers who might have otherwise been available for training sessions to fill unmanned posts. The number of staff out sick has dramatically decreased since January, but is still above pre-pandemic levels, according to the city comptroller’s office.
Rocchio said, via email, that suicide prevention trainings are “essential,” but did not answer a question about whether there will be an effort to increase the training numbers. He said the department works with the medical provider at city jails to ensure detainees have access to “comprehensive and supportive services.”
Department of Correction policy states that all officer trainees must take an eight-hour state course on suicide prevention. Then, every year, officers must complete a 45-minute online refresher that reviews warning signs and intervention techniques for individuals at risk for self-harm. It also includes instructions on reporting requirements for those in custody believed to have suicidal ideations.
In June, Antonio Bradley, 28, hanged himself in a holding cell at a Bronx courthouse, where he had been transferred for a court appearance. Afterward, he was taken to Lincoln Hospital and formally discharged from custody on compassionate release, according to the Board of Correction. Three days later he was pronounced dead, which was not officially counted as a death in custody since he had been released.
His older brother, Clifford Murray, said that officers should have checked on Bradley, and they should’ve been aware that doctors had diagnosed him with mental health challenges.
“You neglected to give him the services he needs, to pay attention to him,” he said.
Bradley and Murray used to play video games for hours on end, and when he got locked up Bradley often checked in on Murray’s 7-year-old daughter.
“He was inside there, and worrying about his family out here,” Murray said. Murray said he still sleeps with his brother’s blanket. “It’s hard for me to move on.”
“This is an ongoing cycle that keeps happening, keeps happening, keeps happening,” he added. “And it’s like no one gets it.”
The family intends to sue the city over the death, according to their attorney, David Kline.
“How was Antonio able to harm himself and take his own life?” Kline asked. “How was he left to his own devices for so long that he was able to kill himself?"
Last year, the self-injury rate among detainees during the second quarter of 2021 was the highest rate in five years -- 95 incidents for every 1,000 detainees, according to reporting from Gothamist and the news site The City.
Nationally, suicides are the leading cause of jail deaths. Suicides are the most common cause of death in city jails, too; six people died by suicide last year, and five have so far died this year. Suspected drug overdoses, the rate of which have also increased, are a close second.
This is among the worst suicide crises at city jails since at least 2003, when there were six such deaths; before that, in 1985, there were 11 suicides. But the jail population in those years was exponentially higher.
While the detainee population is still below pre-pandemic levels, the number of monthly admissions is now at the highest since before the pandemic. And with continued court backlogs, detainees are staying at Rikers longer, which experts say leaves them more vulnerable to harm and self-harm.
Mental illness is pervasive in city custody. Half of detainees have a mental health diagnosis, according to city numbers. And the percentage of those with serious mental illness was 18% as of July, the highest in at least two years.
A September report from the Board of Correction oversight agency found that a lack of routine inspections of cells by correction officers, delays in administering first aid, and failure to screen incarcerated people for mental health needs had a role in the failure to prevent suicides and drug overdoses in 2021. Video surveillance reviewed by board staffers showed that officers failed to look inside cells to make sure people in custody were “breathing and alive,” despite sometimes falsely stating in their logbooks that they had made the checks.
In July, three correction officers and a captain were arrested following an investigation that determined it took them nearly eight minutes to intervene when an incarcerated teenager attempted suicide in 2019. The officers had walked past the cell of Nicholas Feliciano, who was hanging from a noose, but he was not cut down and aid was not rendered. Feliciano, who had previously attempted to die by suicide while in custody, is still hospitalized with a traumatic brain injury.
The 1,241 uniformed staffers found by Gothamist to have completed a suicide prevention refresher course over the past year is a decrease from previously reported numbers, which stood at 2,400 between November 2020 and November 2021, according to a New York Post story last year. The total number of officers has also decreased since that time.
To address the issue, correction officials said last month they were increasing the salary for suicide prevention aides -- incarcerated people who patrol units to check on those who may have suicidal ideations -- from $1 to $1.45 per day.
Marc Bullaro, a retired assistant deputy warden at Rikers, suggested that to solve the lack of available time for training, officers could do the online suicide prevention training at home or at a library, and be compensated for their time. Bullaro also said in an email that during officer roll calls, supervisors should also remind officers of “predisposing factors that increase the risk of a suicide attempt, the warning signs that sometimes are very conspicuous, the high risk periods that increase suicides and what can be done to prevent suicides.”
“Training is imperative -- but so is control of the jails to keep people safe, including safe from self-harm,” he said.
If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide: do not leave the person alone; remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt; and call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.