A 40-year-old man held at Rikers Island died on Wednesday following an incident that led the Department of Correction to suspend three officers, officials said.
Michael Nieves is the 13th person to die in city custody, or shortly after being released, this year. The rate of death is on pace to exceed 2021, when 16 people died and lethal conditions brought heightened public attention to the jail complex on the island.
Nieves suffered from “severe mental illness,” according to a statement from the Legal Aid Society, which represented him. Legal Aid cited a report in the New York Times alleging that one day last week, two officers and a captain watched, without rendering aid, as Nieves slit his own throat with a razor in an attempted act of suicide. The story said the officers failed to act for at least 10 minutes, at which point Nieves was taken to Elmhurst Hospital and put on life support; he died Tuesday night.
The Department of Correction did not explain why the officers were suspended, but noted that it was related to the circumstances around Nieves’ death.
“The reports that New York City’s uniformed correction officers stood idly and watched Michael Nieves, our client, end his life are infuriating and tragic, but not surprising,” Legal Aid wrote in its statement. “That this week’s tragedy occurred in the unit of the jail that is ostensibly most trained and equipped to jail people with serious mental illness underscores the jail’s fundamental inability to keep safe the people in [the Department of Correction’s] care.”
Legal Aid highlighted a pattern of officers failing to help suffering inmates. In 2019, Nicholas Feliciano hanged himself but officers failed to intervene for eight minutes. Feliciano is still hospitalized with life-altering injuries. Four officers were indicted in June on charges related to the incident.
And in 2021, a jail captain was indicted for failing to intervene in the suicide of another detainee, Ryan Wilson.
Advocates, including attorneys from Legal Aid, are seeking a federal receiver to take over operations at Rikers Island in place of the city. Officers’ failure to follow suicide prevention protocol is one reason why, they said.
Correction Commissioner Louis Molina said the death “is a painful loss.”
“Losing a loved one who is incarcerated is traumatic, and we send our deepest condolences to Mr. Nieves’ family and all those he held dear,” Molina said.
Nieves was held at Rikers since June on a burglary charge.
In fiscal year 2021, 53% of those in city custody had a mental health diagnosis, according to city data. But according to activists for decarceration and former detainees, access to mental health services at Rikers is limited, and officers routinely fail to care for detainees who indicate they want to die by suicide.
Brian Carmichael, who was held at Rikers off and on since 2006 until his release last year, said he was in a crowded holding cell during the height of the Covid epidemic when a man sitting next to him began asking officers to see a mental health professional. Officers ignored him. He then began cutting his wrists, Carmichael said.
At that point, other men in the cell started yelling at the guards for help. Finally, an officer opening the holding pen door to admit a new detainee saw what was happening. But the officer “just shook his head and goes, ‘Really?’ Like, ‘you’re going to do this now?’ Like it was such an imposition and inconvenience to him … and then he walked away.”
“How could a place be so evil?” asked Carmichael, who is now an activist pushing for better conditions at Rikers. “Right here in the biggest city in the country and arguably one of the most progressive, loving cities. How could this be happening?”
The high rate of deaths in city custody comes as the population at the jail balloons. Last year, the city’s average daily jail population was 4,921; as of Wednesday, there were 5,718 people in custody, according to the Department of Correction.
The higher numbers not only contribute to dangerous overcrowding but also complicate the long-standing plan to close Rikers Island by 2027. That plan — which will replace Rikers with four borough-based jails — is predicated on there being fewer than 3,300 people in custody. Earlier this week, Mayor Eric Adams, whose orders to the NYPD to be more aggressive in arrests is part of the reason for the higher population at Rikers, alarmed activists by questioning the plan to reduce detainee numbers and close the facility.