It's not just Rikers.
In New Jersey, the Essex County Prosecutor's Office announced Thursday that an inmate has been charged with murder in the stabbing death of another inmate last week at Newark's Essex County Correctional Facility. The incident occurred weeks after a video posted on social media showed another inmate with schizophrenia at the same facility who was beaten so severely, including having a microwave dropped on his head, that he spent weeks in a coma.
Across the nation, jails that house a mix of pre-trial detainees and inmates serving short sentences are seeing significant numbers of deaths of people in custody. Three people died in a Louisville jail last week. Fourteen people died this year in Philadelphia’s jails -- the same number as at Rikers, which holds three times as many inmates. And last year at the Tarrant County jail in Dallas, 21 people died.
The much-publicized conditions at the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City mirrors systemic issues plaguing other correctional institutions.
“The challenge for county jails and indeed correctional institutions nationwide is the convergence of populations of those that are behaviorally violent with those that are mentally ill,” said Jim McGreevey, a former New Jersey governor who runs a reentry program and leads a civilian task force focused on improving conditions at the Essex County jail. “It’s the inability to discern and distinguish between these two populations and provide for care accordingly.”
Jayshawn Boyd, the man beaten at the jail in September, has a history of mental illness. According to his attorney, Brooke Barnett, he should not have been housed in a unit with those alleged to have committed murder. The last time Boyd, 22, was at the Essex County jail, Barnett said, he showed signs of mental illness, including delusions, and he was sent to a state psychiatric hospital for a prolonged stay. He returned to jail after turning himself in for missing a court date, which violated his probation.
Yet at the Essex County jail, Boyd was designated as a low mental health priority, Barnett said. And an intake questionnaire wrongly indicated that he hadn’t previously undergone mental health treatment.
Just 10 minutes after moving into his unit, Barnett said, Boyd was attacked. Video of the incident, which first surfaced on Facebook and was recorded by an unknown person, shows seven inmates punching and stomping on Boyd, mostly in the head, even after he lay motionless on the ground. One inmate hit him with a broomstick and objects were dropped on his head, including a bucket filled with cleaning fluid, a water cooler, and a microwave.
During the 2-minute video, no jail officers can be seen coming to Boyd’s aid. “These officers are scared out of their minds,” Barnett said, adding that correctional officers have not been properly trained to deal with such situations. “They’re not cut out for this.”
A request for comment from the officers’ union, PBA Local 232, was not returned.
The seven inmates shown on the video were charged with attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and weapons offenses, according to the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office. Boyd remains hospitalized. He recently awoke from a medically induced coma, but he is non-verbal and cannot walk. Barnett has filed a notice with the county that the family intends to sue.
In last week’s killing of an inmate, the Essex County Prosecutor this week charged inmate Ashton D. Barthelus with murder and unlawful possession of a weapon in the stabbing death last Friday of inmate Dan G. Milford Gelin. The state Attorney General's Office is also investigating the incident.
Earlier this year, a correctional officer at the Essex County jail was charged with assaulting an inmate who squirted a liquid on him. Three other correctional officers failed to intervene and stop that attack.
In response to the incidents, the county retained independent consultants from The Ambrose Group, led by Newark’s former public safety director Anthony Ambrose, to conduct an assessment of jail operations, including security and staffing. A former superintendent of the state police, a former commissioner of the state Department of Corrections, and a former chief counsel to Gov. Chris Christie will be involved in the assessment.
“We need a fresh set of eyes to review our policies and standards,” County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo said in a statement.
But activists and the formerly incarcerated say solutions won’t come from current and former government officials. They staged a rally outside the county office building on Wednesday calling for the jail to be shut down.
Antonne Henshaw, who spent decades in prison in New Jersey, said the problems are systemic. “This is deeper than just an assault,” he said. “This is a culture of violence that permeates every system of carceral spaces throughout America.”