Rafael Negron woke up in his Rikers Island dorm on October 26th, vomiting and demanding to see a doctor. Instead, he claimed, correction officers told the Type 1 diabetic he had to go to court.
On any other day, Negron, 29, would be desperate to go in front of a judge and get his case moving forward. He’s facing murder charges for a shooting last year — an act he and his lawyer insist was in self-defense — and has been held at the city jail for 13 moths. But unlike his guards that day, he'd already been told his hearing had been cancelled. The judge, Negron’s lawyer had been told, was too busy and lacked the staff necessary to hear the case, making Negron one of a rapidly growing number of detainees held at Rikers for more than a year.
That morning, Negron was placed in handcuffs and loaded into a cage at the back of an empty bus, where he said he was refused water and waited for hours, only for the officers to tell him he was right — he didn't have court that day.
Negron said his diabetes makes him prone to dehydration, so when he returned to Rikers he felt ill, but had to force himself to slowly drink from his bottle, drip by drip, to avoid vomiting again. The next morning he was transferred to Bellevue Hospital where he stayed for two days, according to his family. He’s been hospitalized a total of five times since first being incarcerated.
In that time, Rikers has descended into crisis as hundreds of corrections officers have failed to show up for work. Fourteen people held in New York City jails have died so far this year, the majority of them at Rikers — five by suicide. But what’s driven that crisis is not just a staffing issue.
The city’s court system has been overwhelmed with a growing backlog of cases since the start of the pandemic, which came to an almost complete standstill for most of last year. As of last month, more than 52,000 criminal cases were pending in New York City state courts, nearly a 40% increase since early 2020. And even now — with courts partially reopened — COVID-19 restrictions have meant more delays and cancelled hearings, leaving an increasing number of people like Negron stuck in jail as they wait for trials.
“You go to court, but you never see anybody,” Negron said. “You go. They reschedule, you go and reschedule. Go and reschedule. To the point where you don’t even want to go no more.”
Policy experts and former corrections officials say case delays are one of the single biggest factors contributing to the recent growth in the city’s jail population, which is now nearly one and half times bigger than it was in April of last year, according to Department of Correction data, and detainees are staying for longer. Of the more than 5,400 men and women currently held in Rikers and other city jails, nearly 1,700, almost a third, have — like Negron — been awaiting trial for more than a year, almost double pre-pandemic levels.
“No one should ever be in a jail for that long. It's not a prison. It's to hold you pretrial during the pendency of a case,” said Michael Jacobson, Director of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance and a former New York City correction commissioner.
Reducing this backlog could drastically reduce the number of people held in the city's jails, Jacobson and other current and former city leaders said, but the problems that fueled the crisis aren’t new. Most were only exacerbated by the pandemic, and fixing them would require costly and difficult changes to the criminal justice system: adding more courtrooms, upgrading and syncing records sharing programs, and getting correction officers to show up for work, just to name a few. And leaders said these options are often at odds with the conflicting interests of the judges, police, prosecutors, and guards who make the gears of the system turn.
“I Know You Didn’t Mean This To Happen”
As a child growing up in the Bronx, Rafael Negron wasn’t allowed to play outside because of the dangers beyond his apartment door. He and his sister Stephanie Negron spent their childhoods in West Farms, a working-class Latino neighborhood, under the watchful eye of their single mother, Darlene Perez, who hosted game nights and Halloween parties indoors as a way to keep them out of trouble.
“I was afraid of things going on outside,” Perez says. “I didn't want him hanging out.”
But as Negron became a teenager, he found it hard to navigate the world outside. He was handsome and popular with girls in school, but large crowds made him anxious and he struggled taking tests. Soon after being transferred to a big high school in his sophomore year, his mother said he stopped wanting to get out of bed and didn’t want to go anymore. Eventually, he dropped out.
Negron’s family said he started to find his way in his early 20s. Inspired by the house flipping shows his sister loved to watch, he threw his energies into construction jobs — painting an aunt’s room, remodeling a friend’s house. For Christmas one year, he built a mock fireplace for his mother out of plywood, painted white with red ribbons attached, so they had a place to hang their stockings for the holiday. By 2019, he was juggling two to three gigs at a time and had even earned a certification in workplace safety in the hope of bringing home more money.
Then COVID-19 hit, halting society and his progress with it. His odd-jobs dried up. He spent months looking for work with no luck. In the past, Stephanie’s nursing salary could have kept the three of them afloat, but now his girlfriend Melanie Rodriguez, who he’d met the year before, was living with them. A few months into the pandemic, they learned Melanie was pregnant. Negron was going to be a father.
His family said this is when a friend of a friend offered him a way to make quick cash, dealing marijuana.
“I said, ‘I don’t want you to do this,’” Perez recalled telling her son. “And he was like, ‘But how am I gonna get money? Mel is pregnant and I need to have everything ready by the time she gives birth.’ I’m like, ‘But this is not the way that I want you to do it.’”
He didn’t listen to her. Negron’s family said that in summer 2020 he started selling inside a secluded apartment courtyard in Inwood, a neighborhood on the northern edge of Manhattan. But it was risky. He lived in constant fear of being robbed or caught by police. That autumn, before his more serious troubles began, he told his mother about a few men who’d dropped by the courtyard and threatened him.
On a brisk evening last October, Negron stood in the shadows of the courtyard and wore a hooded jacket to protect himself from the wind swaying the tree branches back and forth. He was in the middle of his night shift, he said, when a man walked up and put his arm around him.
“He started antagonizing me, like I should know who he is,” Negron said.
Surveillance footage from that night shows the two men getting into a fight and Negron firing a weapon, though it’s difficult to see exactly what happened. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office said it could not comment on an open criminal case.
According to Negron’s attorney, the gun belonged to the other man and that, after he’d pulled it out, Negron got hold of it to defend himself.
“I definitely wanted to see my family again,” Negron said. “I was having a baby I wanted to see.”
Perez remembered her son calling her crying. Police had found and arrested him soon after the shooting.
“He was saying, ‘I'm so sorry, mom. I'm so sorry,’” she said. “And I was like, ‘I know you didn't mean this to happen. Don't say sorry to me.’”
As Negron rode the bus onto Rikers Island that fall, he was about to encounter a world of horrors that many other New Yorkers would only read about months later.
With COVID-19 infections steadily rising, detainees were cut off from family visits and basic services, like access to the barbershop and the library. At the same time, the increasing number of guards failing to show up to work — which New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has blamed on the correction officers’ union — resulted in longer wait times for detainees in need of food and routine medical care.
As conditions worsened, incidents of self harm in city jails practically doubled from the start of the pandemic to the day Negron arrived at Rikers in October last year. Stabbings and other violent assaults plagued the island, particularly among 18 year old detainees. And guards’ use-of-force rates climbed to levels higher than at any time in the previous five years.
Like many people charged with murder, Negron was initially denied bail, but even when it was granted, his family members said they couldn’t come up with the tens of thousands of dollars needed for his release. In the summer of 2020, judges began to set unaffordable bail amounts more often for defendants accused of violent felonies, in many cases rebelling against recent reforms to the state’s bail laws. And since he was facing a murder charge, any plea deal he may have been offered would have still come with a lengthy prison sentence as his daughter grew up.
DNA testing eventually linked the gun to the man Negron had killed, his attorney said, and he felt he had a strong case — one that several attorneys said was simpler than other murder cases where prosecutors need time to track down witnesses and prove who the perpetrator was. Negron admitted he’d been the shooter. His dispute was over why he’d done it, and a trial was his only chance to prove he’d acted in self-defense. He just didn’t realize how long that would take.
The System Shuts Down
Because COVID-19 had shut down almost all in-person court activity, judges switched to virtual arraignments to handle decisions about bail and pre-trial detention as police continued to make arrests. But most of the other key procedures that allow cases to progress — grand juries, evidentiary hearings, jury selection, trials — had been put on pause or drastically reduced for most of 2020.
According to defense attorneys, this began to deprive prosecutors of one of their most effective methods for moving defendants out of jail and into prison, probation, or some other punishment — the threat that a judge would impose a harsh sentence if they chose to go to trial instead of pleading guilty, whether they committed a crime or not.
But with no trial dates looming over defendants during last year’s shutdown, city prosecutors who spoke to WNYC/Gothamist argue that defense attorneys saw an opportunity in waiting. Case delays could work in their clients’ favor. Witnesses and victims might lose interest, make up with defendants, or leave the country. And with the extra time, defense investigators could find their own witnesses or surveillance videos to support their clients’ side of the story.
“Everyone knows that the government's cases get weaker with time. They don't age well,” said James Vinocur, a partner at Goldberg Segalla who worked in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office until this August.
Defense attorneys interviewed for this story, however, said that prosecutors were under less pressure to move forward because of the pandemic and could have offered more generous plea deals in order to move people out of jail faster. For most of 2020, the state suspended the deadlines that prosecutors are usually under to issue indictments and provide defendants with evidence for their cases.
Martha Grieco, a staff attorney at Bronx Defenders, an organization that provides legal representation for low-income defendants, said that with trials on pause, prosecutors could have done more to turn over all of their discovery materials, like body worn camera footage and police records, and to vet their witnesses to ensure the charges they’d brought against people waiting in jail were still viable to keep unworkable cases from clogging up the court system.
“It was almost as if no progress was made for the vast majority of 2020 on cases,” Grieco said, noting that long standing cases aren’t able to move forward today because prosecutors still have evidence they need to turn over to defense attorneys.
“I'm seeing cases now where I'm getting discovery that the prosecutor should have known was missing a year ago,” she said. ”They weren't focused on [their cases] until it was time to go to trial. And that's typical. I mean, that's always been the case, but in the past we've had deadlines for them.”
All of it—the court shutdown, the clashing incentives for attorneys, the tougher bail decisions—helped fuel the growth of the long-term population at Rikers. For each case, the two sides would log online every few months for the perfunctory ritual of virtual court hearings, judges would push back cases months into the future, unsure of when society would come back to life, and more and more defendants like Negron waited with no real trial dates on the horizon.
De Blasio Demands Courts Reopen Without Clear Path Forward
By the start of the new year, Negron had been transferred to an infirmary unit at Rikers with beds designed to hold detainees with chronic health problems. But even there, he said he struggled to get medical care, which his family believes has had a detrimental effect on his health.
By then, corrections officers were effectively waging a work stoppage. Between January and June of 2021, an average of 1,200 officers were calling out sick every day and hundreds more were on medically monitored status, limiting their ability to work with detainees. Remaining staff members were forced to work double and triple shifts.
According to jail medical records during this time, Negron missed dozens of nursing visits that had been scheduled to check his blood sugar levels. In several cases, guards blamed Negron for refusing to come out of his jail dorm. But in at least one case, WNYC/Gothamist found discrepancies in the Department of Corrections account of why that check up never happened.
A medical report dated May 23rd shows Negron didn’t attend a nursing visit that morning, accompanied by a note that reads “[Patient] not produced, refused as per DOC,” meaning that, according to jail staff, he’d refused to attend the check up. However, medical records show Negron was not on Rikers Island at all that day, but was instead at Bellevue Hospital, where he’d been brought two days earlier after he’d woken up urinating blood.
The Department of Correction did not address this specific discrepancy, but noted there can be problems with their record keeping system.
One Rikers doctor, who requested anonymity because she’s not authorized to speak to the press, said the Department of Corrections staffing failures are actively harming her patients, especially those with chronic conditions who need regular monitoring to prevent disease progression.
“When our patients aren’t produced to see us, we cannot reliably do anything — we can’t interview and examine them, we can’t make sure they see specialists, we can’t prescribe their essential medicines,” she said. “They end up at serious risk of adverse outcomes including death simply because they are incarcerated.”
As Negron struggled to get medical care, the city’s court system slowly began to reawaken from its pandemic slumber, albeit at a much more anemic version of its former self. Social distancing guidelines handed down from the state required court staff and members of the public to stay 6 feet apart, drastically limiting courtroom capacity. Court administrators had to take up multiple trial rooms for procedures involving dozens of people, such as jury selection and deliberation, processes that could previously have been handled in smaller areas.
But even when detainees did receive court dates, the vanishingly small number of guards who showed up for work meant the Department of Correction struggled to get people transferred from jail to the courtroom on time, if at all. Attorneys said departmental buses ran late. Guards claimed defendants were unwilling to come to hearings, even virtual ones. And defenders spent hours waiting at Rikers to see their clients. The inefficiencies of the system stretched out cases across the city, although in a statement, the Department of Correction noted it’s improved its capacity to get people to court in recent months.
By spring 2021, the slow-building crisis at Rikers was starting to percolate in the media. In March, jail staff found a detainee named Tomas Carlo Camacho unresponsive, his head stuck through a narrow opening in a cell door. The 48-year-old later died at a hospital. Several weeks later, another man, Javier Velasco, hung himself with a bedsheet, after previously attempting suicide days before, according to a New York Times investigation.
Throughout the summer and fall, the pace of deaths and suicides in the city’s jails accelerated, with two in August and three more in September.
De Blasio — who in his final months as mayor has reopened schools and city offices, and enforced a vaccine mandate on city workers — urged the courts to ramp back up their operations. At a daily press briefing in October, he called on judges to hold 1,000 more appearances per week in order to chip away at the backlog, asking why courts couldn’t fully reopen like the rest of society.
“We cannot get safer without you. Let’s look at the numbers. The court system is not moving forward, it’s just a fact,” he said. “Trials are down 92% compared to pre-pandemic levels. Pleas are down 55%. This is not acceptable.”
Many criminal justice experts, including prosecutors and the corrections commissioner Vincent Shiraldi, agree that getting the courts back to full capacity could cut down the city jail population and help authorities get a grip on the chaos at Rikers. A recent Center for Court Innovation study, for example, found that improvements to the court backlog and case processing times could lower the city jail population by more than 1,000 people.
“We’ve been allotted four trial slots per month,” said one senior New York City prosecutor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concerns over jeopardizing his office’s working relationships with defenders and judges.
“That is insufficient to change the incentive structure of any individual defendant because the odds of you being one of those four trials is vanishingly low,” the prosecutor said, referring again to the pressure that the threat of a lengthy sentence can place on a defendant to take a plea deal. “Give me more dates on which I can start trials and I’ll start trials.”
But, in response to questions from WNYC/Gothamist, state and local authorities differ on who’s responsible for doing that.
The Office of Court Administration balks at the notion that it can easily hear more cases and make more trial rooms available. A spokesperson for the courts said the de Blasio administration has given them no realistic offers of additional space to hold trials and grand jury proceedings. Lawrence Marks, the state’s Chief Administrative Judge, said the courtrooms they do have can’t be used efficiently because they don’t have the authority to enforce vaccine mandates or to lift social distancing protocols.
Court officials said those rules were promulgated by the state Department of Health, but health department officials deny they issued any COVID guidance specific to the courts.
“To suggest that we can develop and promulgate our own mitigation and prevention policies is contrary to the guidance that [the Department of Health] has repeatedly given us and public policy,” said Lucian Chalfen, a courts spokesperson, who said his agency has had “repeated conversations” with the governor’s office about reducing social distancing rules from 6 to 3 feet in courthouses.
In a statement to WNYC/Gothamist, Governor Kathy Hochul’s office said that in response to inquiries from the courts she directed the state Department of Health to get guidance from the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention. A spokesperson for Hochul noted that the governor is “open to any changes that will ensure the fair and efficient administration of justice while protecting the health and safety of all participants.”
A Void of Leadership, Conflicting Politics
When Negron was loaded onto the corrections bus last month and hauled to court for a hearing that’d been canceled, his attorney Damien Brown had been eager to move the case along, worried his diabetic client wouldn’t survive further delays.
“I felt horrible because this young man, who I believe is innocent, has to continue to remain in Rikers Island where he's not getting proper medical treatment,” said Brown. “Every day of delay creates a greater risk of him dying.”
Speeding up the court process for detainees would require cooperation among a host of public servants. Judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, court staffers, and city policy makers would not just need to work together. In some cases, they’d need to work harder. But there is a precedent for this.
When the pandemic first hit the city, de Blasio’s team called together all the key parties in the criminal justice system to achieve a simple goal: getting people off Rikers Island to stop unnecessary infections and deaths. The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, then led by Elizabeth Glazer, served as a coordinating body that held meetings, shared data, and helped with case reviews to determine who should be released and who shouldn’t be sent to jail in the first place. And for a brief moment, the collaboration worked. In roughly the first six weeks of the shutdown starting in March, the city’s jail population shrank 30% to levels not seen since World War II.
What’s lacking now, Glazer argues, is leadership.
“The important thing is to stop assessing blame and to work together to solve the problem,” she said.
Most of the roadblocks, in her view, are operational: cutting out needless and lengthy court adjournments, finding and retrofitting new hearing rooms, expanding evidence sharing technology, creating GPS systems to track where detainees are as they transit from Rikers to criminal court.
“Everybody who's part of the justice system, every decision maker has an interest and a desire to have the system work efficiently and fairly,” said Glazer, who now runs a public policy journal called Vital City.
But prosecutors and defense attorneys often differ in their interpretation of what efficiency and fairness should mean. Prosecutors want courts to move faster in order to get more verdicts and guilty pleas, which can in many cases result in prison sentences. Whereas defense attorneys are eager to see other parts of the system sped up, but not all.
“Usually when we talk about efficiency in a system, especially processing people through a system, the people that end up getting short shrift will be the people that I represent as a public defender,” said Thalia Karny, a senior trial attorney with the New York County Defender Services.
Karny said she would support improvements in getting people to court on time and speedier access to clients in jail. She also supports expanding court infrastructure, but only if it also means diverting more defendants away from prison and into alternative programs, such as mental health and drug rehabilitation clinics.
Getting to know a client’s particular needs and difficulties in life can be helpful in getting them in line for programs or gathering mitigating factors for judges to consider at sentencing. But that process takes time and trust, Karny says, and speeding through cases could just result in excessive punishment for people who need help.
“We’re talking about people of color, Black, Latino, indigent people,” she said. “They’re going to get the short shrift because that’s what always happens.”
On a rainy night in October, Melanie Rodriguez sits on a black couch in her in-laws’ brightly-lit living room on the phone with her child’s father, Rafael Negron. Two years ago, she would have been here with him, staying up late playing video games. Now, this is where she rests with their daughter, cupping the child in her arms.
The girl, almost 8 months old, hasn’t said her first word yet. She doesn’t understand what her mom, aunt and grandma are saying as they chat with her father about his exile to an island far, far away.
Negron wasn’t around for her birth. He heard about it over the phone in jail where a guard gave him just five minutes to talk. Resting on her hospital bed, Melanie told him the baby had his features—eyes shaped like almonds, nostrils that flared out, and his milky, caramel skin, slightly lighter than hers. After their call, he ran through his jail dorm, shouting in excitement, drawing well-wishes from the other men inside. It was one of the proudest moments in the 29-year-old’s life, but also one of the hardest.
“I thought I would be there for the birth,” he said. “It was supposed to be a mother and father thing.”
The line goes silent once his phone time runs out. Afterwards, Negron’s mother brings around a brown teddy bear he made for his daughter at a Build-A-Bear store before she was born. It’s one of the closest things his daughter has had to regular contact with him. Separated by plexiglass during her one visit to Rikers this summer, she’s never been able to reach out and hug him. But here at home, if she presses the bear, it plays a recording of her father’s voice, “Daddy loves you.”
Her family hopes that some day she’ll get more. They just don’t know when.
George Joseph is an investigative reporter with WNYC/Gothamist's Public Safety Unit. You can send him tips on Facebook, Twitter @georgejoseph94, Instagram @georgejoseph81, and at firstname.lastname@example.org. His phone and encrypted Signal app number is 929-486-4865.