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Rikers Detainee Endured ‘Horrible Conditions’ Before Dying in Cell, Jails Overseer Finds

Missing blankets and sheets. No pillows. Limited food and exercise. That’s what a new father jailed on a parole violation stemming from a shoplifting arrest faced before becoming the first of three men to die at Rikers since April.

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

A detainee was held in “horrible conditions” — no pillows, blankets or regular food — in an intake pen on Rikers Island for several days before his death in April, according to the city’s jail oversight board.

Thomas Earl Braunson III, a 35-year-old new father jailed on a parole violation stemming from shoplifting arrest, was found dead in his cell in the Eric M. Taylor Center on April 19 at about 8:30 a.m. He’s one of three men to die in Correction Department custody since April.

The day after Braunson’s death, two Board of Correction staffers and one board commissioner, Dr. Robert Cohen, visited and found “severe staffing and supplies issues” with many detainees “missing sheets and blankets,” according to the initial review obtained by THE CITY through a Freedom of Information Law request.

Many of the men were also not “receiving recreation or meals on a regular schedule” and no one in the entire area had a pillow, said the report by the board, which is charged with overseeing the city jails system.

“We discovered horrible conditions in the EMTC intake pens, where Mr. Braunson spent several days before his death,” the report said.

A building at the entrance to Rikers Island was open year round for people to pick up valuables, July 1, 2021.
A building at the entrance to Rikers Island
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Danielle DeSouza, a Correction Department spokesperson, declined to comment on the report. “We will review once final,” she said.

Last month, Braunson’s family filed a notice of claim, the first step in submitting a suit against New York City, charging correction officials were “careless, reckless, and negligent” in their care of him behind bars. They also failed to appropriately screen him and identify “symptoms of drug intoxication and withdrawal,” according to the notice, which seeks $50 million dollars in injury and damages.

Family lawyer, Andrew Salomon, said the Board of Correction report “further underscores the need to fully investigate this matter so that true justice will prevail for Mr. Braunson and his family.”

Autopsies Lagging

More than two months on, the city’s Medical Examiner’s Office has not established why Braunson died. The cause of death for the other two men who died behind bars has also not been determined.

The median time to complete autopsy reports has gone from 45 days in the 2018 fiscal year to 181 in the 2021 fiscal year, which covers the pandemic, according to the Mayor’s Management Report.

Mark Desire, a spokesperson for the ME’s Office, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Braunson’s final return to detention unfolded in December 2019 when an absconder warrant was issued for him based on an 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, a Lower East Side native who worked in construction, was on parole after being 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 later 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 spent three days in the processing facility before he was sent to a regular housing unit, a detainee who was with him since his time in Queens court told the Board of Correction death review team.

The men initially waited outside the Rikers facility for three hours on a transport bus as jail staff made space for them inside. At one point, 27 people were in the intake pen, the man, whose name was redacted, told investigators.

“Six people were dope-sick and throwing up at various points,” the detainee said.

The morning before his death, Braunson “wasn’t feeling well,” the man said, according to the report.

Some detainees in the housing area said jail officials did not clean up the location after Braunson died “and that the men on the unit had to carry out his bloody mattress without gloves or equipment,” according to the report.

Authorities closed the Taylor Center in 2019 as part of the Rikers Island shutdown plan, but the facility reopened as a central intake center to help with spacing when the pandemic hit in March 2020. It closed again on May 17, according to DeSouza.

‘His World Changed’

Three months before Braunson’s death, Trisha Alam, gave birth to their daughter, Vinessa.

“His world was changed,” says an obituary posted online by Bailey’s Funeral Home. “Vinessa became the focus of all he said and did.”

Alam, 34, his high school sweetheart, wants answers from the city.

“He was going to come home and help with the baby,” Alam told THE CITY through tears Sunday. “It’s just devastation. We just want to know what happened.”

Staffing shortages have been an issue for months at the Correction Department, as THE CITY has previously reported.

On Sunday, the department ordered all staff out sick to make a medical appointment with the city’s medical provider at Mount Sinai Hospital within 24 hours.

Just 11 days after Braunson’s death, 45-year-old Richard Blake, another man held at Rikers on a parole violation due to a new arrest, died shortly after telling staff he wasn’t feeling well inside the Otis Bantum Correctional Center.

Jose Mejia Martinez, seen celebrating his 34th birthday in February 2021, died on Rikers Island June 10 after being locked up on a parole violation.
Jose Mejia Martinez, seen celebrating his birthday in February 2021, died on Rikers Island June 10.
Courtesy of Martinez Family

On June 10, 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 Rikers’ George Motchan Detention Center.

The grim discovery of Mejia Martinez, 34, came about two hours after state Senate members began their vote to approve the “Less Is More” Act, which is aimed at overhauling New York’s parole system. The act, which also later passed the state Assembly, would give parolees more leeway in avoiding jail after being busted for low-level offenses or technical violations. Gov. Andrew has yet to sign the bill into law.

In the cases of all three recent Rikers deaths, no visible injuries were found on the men’s bodies.

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