At least 16 people died in New York City jails last year. Most were awaiting trial and died on Rikers Island, the 90-year-old warren of cellblocks separated from the city’s mainland by the East River. The first to die was found in January, hanging from a sprinkler head in his jail cell a week after his arrival. The second was found strangled a month later, his head forced through a slot in his cell door in what was ruled a suicide. The deaths have received much scrutiny compared with years past, with many seemingly preventable after reforms at the jails and the emptying of thousands of inmates during the pandemic. Inmates were found hanging from the ends of makeshift nooses or slumped from drug overdoses in a place with a responsibility to keep each inmate safe from harm, pending trial or release, the New York Times reports.
Some of the victims were past middle age, others in their prime. Several fought crippling addictions. Many had lifelong mental health issues. One was a handyman. Another a new father. There wasa serial thief, a stalking suspect and a man accused of threatening to inject a stranger with H.I.V. There have been worse years at Rikers: In 2013 there were 23 deaths, and that number rose above 30 in the 1990s. In 1990, 96 inmates died in custody. Last year’s number is striking after the jail population declined steeply n 2020 compared with previous years, when the system often held at least twice as many. All but one of those who died were Black or Hispanic. They faced charges ranging from parole violations to robbery, assault and murder. At least six died by suicide, and at least three others by overdose. Most of the deaths might have been prevented by basic oversight, but during the pandemic, jail employees have been overworked, reporting sick and staying away by the hundreds.