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Another Man Died at Rikers as Lawmakers Voted on Parole Bill that Might Have Saved Him

Rikers Island
The entrance to Rikers Island on Hazen Street in Queens, Jan. 21, 2019.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

At around 2 p.m. on Thursday, lawmakers in the state Senate began voting to overhaul New York’s parole system following years of lobbying from experts and advocates.

Two hours later, a correction officer found Jose Mejia Martinez — locked up on a parole violation tied to an arrest for swiping beer — dead in his cell inside the George Motchan Detention Center on Rikers Island.

Mejia Martinez, 34, became the third person jailed on a parole violation after a new arrest on a low-level offense to die on Rikers in less than two months.

None of the causes of death have been determined yet.

Mejia Martinez struggled with mental illness and drugs, according to a source familiar with his case who was not authorized to speak publicly.

“It’s really heartbreaking,” said Gabriel Sayegh, the co-executive director at the Katal Center for Equity, Health and Justice.

Sayegh and other supporters of the “Less Is More” Act, cited the death as the latest stark example of why Gov. Andrew Cuomo should sign the bill into law right away — and accelerate its implementation. A Cuomo spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Before breaking for the summer Thursday night, the state Senate and Assembly passed the measure, which would give parolees more leeway in avoiding jail after being busted for low-level offenses or technical violations.

Following the current timeline, Less Is More would be gradually implemented before going into full effect on March 1, 2022. But language in the legislation allows the state officials to expedite the process.

Under the act, parole officers would no longer be able to automatically toss people back into jail if they violate curfew or fail to notify their parole officers of a change in employment. The measure also requires officials to speed up hearings for parolees accused of violating the conditions of their release.

A parole officer can currently send someone back to jail immediately if “reasonable cause” for a violation exists. Among the potential violations: a failed drug test (including marijuana), a blown curfew or changing residence without approval.

A ‘Tragic Death’

As for Mejia Martinez, in April a parole violation warrant was issued after he was arrested for allegedly stealing two cases of beer from a CTown supermarket on St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem, according to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), which oversees people on parole.

During his arrest, cops say they also found a crack pipe in his pocket and he was charged with criminal possession of a controlled substance in the seventh degree, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office said.

Mejia Martinez was also given a desk appearance ticket in two separate incidents and had not been arraigned yet, according to a source familiar with his case.

While on parole on a 2019 assault rap, he had failed to follow repeated instructions for reporting to his parole officer and changed his residence without approval, said Thomas Mailey, a DOCCS spokesperson.

Currently, when a person on parole is accused of a new, low-level misdemeanor offense — such as shoplifting or possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use — a parole warrant can be immediately issued.

If the “Less Is More Act” is signed by Cuomo, those people would be issued a written notice of a parole violation. It would be up to the judge handling their new

criminal case to decide whether to put the person back in jail pre-trial.

“Mr. Mejia Martinez’ tragic death is the latest example underscoring the importance of recently passed Less Is More legislation, awaiting Governor Cuomo’s signature, that aims to abolish mandatory detention for non-criminal technical parole violations,” said Lorraine McEvilley, director of the parole revocation defense unit at The Legal Aid Society.

Two Similar Cases

Mejia Martinez’ death, first reported by the Daily News, followed the recent revelation of the demise of two other men at Rikers.

Thomas Earl Braunson III died on Rikers Island on April 19 after being arrested for a parole violation.
Thomas Braunson III died while being held at Rikers Island in April.
Courtesy of Braunson Family

Thomas Braunson III, 35, a new father jailed for allegedly shoplifting, died inside the Eric M. Taylor Center on Rikers on April 19. Braunson’s wife gave birth to their daughter, Vinessa, three months before his death.

On April 30, 45-year-old Richard Blake, another detainee held on a parole violation due to a new arrest, died shortly after he told staff he wasn’t feeling well inside the Otis Bantum Correctional Center on Rikers.

No visible injuries were found on their bodies, according to initial department reports, and causes of death were pending.

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