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Death of Two Men at Rikers — One Held on Shoplifting Rap — Amplifies Push to Overhaul Parole Rules

Thomas Earl Braunson III died on Rikers Island on April 19 after being arrested for a parole violation.
Officials say they still don’t know what killed Thomas Earl Braunson III in a Rikers Island cell on April 19. He had been locked up on a parole violation.
Courtesy of Braunson Family

Two men locked up on low-level arrests that violated their parole — one of them a new father jailed for allegedly shoplifting — recently died behind bars on Rikers Island, THE CITY has learned.

News of the deaths of Thomas Braunson III, 35, on April 19, and 45-year-old Richard Blake just 11 days later comes as advocates make a final push to state legislative leaders to approve a comprehensive parole reform package dubbed “Less is More” before Albany lawmakers go home next week.

“One thing that is very clear: There are too many people who are being re-incarcerated on parole for low-level offenses,” said State Sen. Brian Benjamin (D-Manhattan), the lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate.

It wasn’t immediately clear what killed Braunson, who had been sent to Rikers after a shoplifting arrest in New Jersey, and Blake, who was being held on a minor drug charge.

Braunson’s mother, Sharon Gross-Gill, told THE CITY she last spoke to her son a day before his death. She told him she loved him.

“He said, ‘I love you more’” — and promised to call back the next day, she recalled.

“The next phone call I get from Rikers Island is from a chaplain,” she said. “It’s still very hard to believe. He said he’d call me on Monday.

“I’m still waiting for that phone call.”

Race Against Time

Cases like Braunson and Blake’s are pointed to by supporters of the legislation, which has backing from more than 275 faith-based and community organizations from across the state, as well as three of the city’s five district attorneys.

Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz and Staten Island DA Michael McMahon have not signed letters backing the legislation.

The legislation has been bouncing around Albany since being introduced in late 2018. But supporters hope this year the reform package finally gets to the finish line.

State lawmakers are currently talking about a bill that would need to be agreed upon by members and leaders of both state legislative chambers, according to Benjamin. The legislature is expected to adjourn on June 10.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea-Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie have given “soft support” to the bill, said Gabriel Sayegh, the co-executive director at the Katal Center for Equity, Health and Justice.

“We’ve gotten no formal commitment,” he added, noting that the group has had meetings with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s team about the legislation.

A Disproportionate Impact

Under the current system, a parole officer can send a parolee to jail immediately if “reasonable cause” for a violation exists. Among the potential violations: a failed drug test, a blown curfew or changing residence without approval.

The proposed legislation would limit parole officers’ ability to toss technical violators back in jail. Once there, a person could wait up to three months behind bars without bail to see a judge, who would ultimately determine whether the parolee can be released or sent back to prison.

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

Supporters of the legislation, including the New York State Bar Association, say there is little or no evidence that jailing parolees for minor violations enhances public safety or reduces recidivism.

According to the most recent data from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, New York reincarcerates more people for technical violations of parole than any other state in the nation — without any proven public safety benefits, Sayegh said.

Meanwhile, Black and Latino people in New York are under parole supervision at 6.8 and 2.5 times the rate of white people, respectively, according to a March 2020 study by Columbia University’s Justice Lab Center.

At the same time, Black and Latino New Yorkers are more likely than white New Yorkers to be stopped by the police, and more likely than their white counterparts to be charged and arrested for low-level misdemeanors.

The research paper was written by Kendra Bradner and Vincent Schiraldi, who took over Tuesday as the city’s Correction Department commissioner.

‘His World Was Changed’

The paper was released a little over a year before an officer conducting a tour allegedly noticed Braunson was unresponsive inside his housing area at the Eric M. Taylor Center (EMTC) on Rikers. The officer immediately called for a medical emergency response, to no avail, according to department records.

Braunson, who grew up on the Lower East Side, was pronounced dead by medical staff at approximately 8:50 a.m. on April 19.

In December 2019, an absconder warrant was issued for him based on his arrest for shoplifting, failing to report to his parole officer and changing his approved residence, according to Thomas Mailey, a spokesperson for the state prison system, which oversees people on parole.

Braunson, who worked in construction, was on parole after he was sentenced to two to four years for criminal possession of stolen property on June 22, 2018, according to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.

He was subsequently arrested in New Jersey for shoplifting in December 2020 and again in April, Mailey said. He was then extradited to Rikers where he was waiting for an administrative hearing on his case.

Braunson’s wife gave birth to their daughter, Vinessa, three months before his death, according to an obituary posted online by Bailey’s Funeral Home.

“His world was changed,” the obituary reads. “Vinessa became the focus of all he said and did.”

His family remembered him as a loving father who was always employed and frequently ended conversations with “love you more.” They want to know why he died, noting he had no underlying health conditions.

‘Full Investigations’ Promised

On April 30, 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.

An officer called for an emergency medical response but Blake lost consciousness before that team arrived, according to the Correction Department’s initial report.

A Correction officer began CPR but Blake was pronounced dead at 11:47 p.m., jail records show.

Rikers Facility
The Otis Bantum facility on Rikers Island.
Courtesy of the Department of Correction

Blake was locked up after he was rearrested on Feb. 11 and charged with criminal possession of a controlled substance in the seventh degree (crack cocaine) and unlawful possession of marijuana in the second degree.

Inmate advocates have long argued for drug treatment instead of jail. They point out that all drug rehabilitation classes in jail have been shut down since COVID hit last spring.

Nearly two months on, the city’s Medical Examiner’s Office has not determined the cause of either death yet.

“Our condolences go out to Mr. Braunson’s and Mr. Blake’s loved ones,” said Peter Thorne, a Correction Department spokesperson. “The health and safety of all those who are placed in our custody is always our first priority, and full investigations are underway.”

Pushback on Legislation

Mailey, the prison spokesperson, notes that both men were put back in jail due to “new crimes” — not technical violations.

Still, the Less is More legislation as currently constructed may have kept them out.

Under current law, any alleged parole violation results in automatic detention for the duration of the parole revocation hearing process, which can take months.

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 Less is More passes, 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 them back in jail pre-trial or after sentencing.

The new legislation also allows parole officers to add supervision conditions if the person is found guilty of the new misdemeanor.

The proposed measure would also require state officials to hold hearings in a timely manner for those locked up on parole violations.

Some cases take months to make their way through the administrative process.

In February, Eugene Terrell, who is a paraplegic because of a gunshot wound from a year ago, was sent to RIkers after his parole officer found a small amount of marijuana and K2 in his home.

He was released from Rikers in April after he suffered a series of medical complications including severe bed sores, jail records show.

“It was crazy because I was sleeping on a metal bed with a mattress, it wasn’t good for my back,” Terrell told THE CITY several days after his release.

In jail, Terrell said he spent most of his time in Bellevue Hospital and was never offered any drug treatment programming in part because the department has closed off all programming since the pandemic.

“Mr. Terrell’​s case, ​which involves only non-criminal technical violations, is a microcosm of New York’s punitive parole system, one that prioritizes punishment over supporting our clients’ successful transition back to their families and communities,” said Lorraine Mc Evilley, Director of the Parole Revocation Defense Unit at The Legal Aid Society.

Not everyone is in favor of the proposed changes.

The Public Employees Federation (PEF), the state’s second largest municipal employee union, which represents parole officers, is against the legislation.

PEF President Wayne Spence, who worked as a parole officer, contends they should be given leeway in deciding whether to lock up an offender. Over the past several months, the union has supported Gov. Andrew Cuomo against allegations of sexual misconduct and a misuse of public resources.

Spence contends Cuomo should be given a chance to defend himself before an investigatory probe just as state employees are entitled to when facing disciplinary charges.

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