Self-Harm Is Exploding In New York City Jails, Internal Numbers Show
Self-harm — including suicides — at Rikers Island and other local lockups spiked last summer as COVID-19 ravaged New York, figures obtained by WNYC/Gothamist and THE CITY show. The rate’s climbed to historic levels in the months since.
Brandon Rodriguez should have had some reason for hope.
Even though the 25-year-old was in jail following a domestic violence dispute, his top charge had been reduced to a misdemeanor. Eventually, he would get out.
Before his arrest, his mother Tamara Carter remembers he was looking forward to a new job with FedEx. She had lent him a pair of tan pants for his orientation.
“He was excited,” Carter said. “He was supposed to be saving money to get his own apartment, and stuff like that.”
Even from jail, his family says, Rodriguez was insistent that his attorney fight the $15,000 bail that was set in his case. He wanted to get out and get back to work. After a court hearing on Aug. 9th, records show, a Staten Island judge lowered the bail to $10,000.
But the very next day, after less than a week in lock-up, a correction officer found Rodriguez dead inside an intake cell on Rikers Island — hanging with his t-shirt tied around his neck, according to Department of Correction records.
His death was not an isolated event.
Internal numbers, obtained by WNYC/Gothamist and THE CITY, show that the rate of self-harm in city jails spiked last summer as COVID-19 ravaged New York and has climbed to historic levels in the months since.
Between July and September 2020, the self-injury rate nearly doubled that of the previous quarter. According to the latest available data, covering April to June of this year, city jails recorded 539 incidents of incarcerated people hurting themselves, pushing the rate up to 95 such incidents per every thousand detainees — the highest in the last five years.
Meanwhile, the number of detainees is growing while staffing shortages have driven city jails into a near constant crisis mode.
A Climate of Despair
After years of no, or few suicides, five people on Rikers Island have taken their lives over the last nine months, the highest total in at least a decade.
To understand why self-harm has escalated so dramatically, WNYC/Gothamist and THE CITY interviewed incarcerated people, jail officials, correction officers, doctors, nurses, mental health professionals, and social workers who worked or lived inside the city’s jails during the pandemic.
Nearly all described a climate of despair rooted in the city’s decision to lock up more and more people following initial mass releases during the pandemic, while failing to meet their basic staffing and resource needs.
The issue has become so serious that the Board of Correction, which oversees the city’s jail system, took the unusual step of issuing a statement Sept. 1 calling on officials to do something.
The board noted that several of the suicides happened in so-called intake areas in which, jail sources say, newly incarcerated people have languished for days in crowded holding pens without beds or adequate food.
“The department must ensure an orderly intake process that quickly provides appropriate housing and medical care for persons in custody, and better identifies and monitors persons in custody who may commit self-harm or harm to others,” the board said in its statement.
If not immediately addressed “the situation will only worsen,” the board predicted, noting that until December 2020 there had been no suicides over most of the prior three years at Rikers Island.
Not all forms of self-injury in jail are fatal: Banging one’s head against a wall, cutting one’s wrists, and even attempted hangings can all be ways to cry out for help, or seek relief in the face of overwhelming stress, correctional health professionals say.
But the escalation of self-harm rates “tends to be a predictor of completed suicides,” noted Dr. Virginia Barber-Rioja, co-chief of mental health for Correctional Health Services, the agency that oversees healthcare in city jails.
“People are under a lot of stress, and a lot of our patients have low impulse control, and extensive histories of trauma,” said Barber-Rioja. “So even when they are not intending to kill themselves, they may actually end up doing something lethal.”
Advocates for the incarcerated say the situation is dire.
“The situation in the jails is at a clear crisis point, and the mayor needs to treat it as one if he wants to avoid more bloodshed,” said Darren Mack, co-director of the jail reform group Freedom Agenda.
To pre-empt further fatalities, Mack, a former Rikers detainee himself, called on Mayor Bill de Blasio and the courts to release detainees en masse.
“When the city has shown they cannot keep people in their custody safe, they have to stop holding people,” Mack said. “No one on Rikers was sentenced to death.”
Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi has said that doing everything possible to reduce the jail population is a priority. The number of detainees has gone from a low of 3,824 last year to 5,950 as of Sept. 1.
Last Summer’s Spike
In the initial days of the COVID lockdown, self-harm rates hovered around previous levels.
As in the world outside, people in the correction system didn’t know how long the crisis was going to last. The uncertainty forged an initial bond of solidarity among detainees and staff, according to a jail mental health worker, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.
“There was almost like a new sense of community in the jail; people were trying to get through this together because it was so unknown to everyone,” the medical staffer recalled.
They said detainees wrote music together, shared phone PIN numbers so others could make calls, and got masks from correction officers to make sure everyone was covered.
In addition, some detainees had hope because attorneys were having success pushing the courts to grant releases, citing the deadliness of COVID.
“People in the jail knew it. They kept asking, ‘Am I on this list? I’m being told I’m on this list,’” said Kelsey De Avila, project director of jail services at Brooklyn Defender Services. “And in a lot of ways that gives people a tremendous amount of hope.”
“For some people, who thought they were being released and couldn’t be released, I think it definitely contributed to people’s hopelessness,” said De Avila.
‘It Drove People Crazy’
By the summer of 2020, the burden of service cuts due to the pandemic was mounting. Detainees did not have access to family visits, barbershops, book deliveries from the public library, and art and music programs.
When Prakash Churaman arrived back at Rikers that July, he says he and fellow detainees were locked in their housing units nearly all day. Sometimes they wouldn’t even get their one hour of recreation.
“It drove people crazy, man,” Churaman said, recalling people in his housing unit screaming and throwing feces at officers.
One day in August or September, he recalled, a fellow detainee became angry that officers wouldn’t let him go to the law library, which was shut down. “He started throwing stuff and then he went up to the CO’s [correction officer’s] face and that’s when the CO got all trigger happy, and basically emptied a whole can of mace,” he said.
Later that day, he said, the detainee came back appearing very distant and quiet in his cell.
A few days later during a shift change around midnight, Churaman recalled, the man tried to hang himself with a bedsheet.
“By the grace of God, man, he got saved, man,” he said. A correction officer, who came in immediately, called for help and a group of officers took him down, according to Churaman.
Churaman, who was released in January on house arrest, said he was not surprised that it was several months into the pandemic before self-harm numbers surged.
“It takes time for the human being’s mind to deteriorate in that type of environment,” he said. “That mental anguish, it takes time to really build. Eventually it builds up to a point where it is unstoppable.”
New Levels of Desperation And Violence
While some of the service cuts associated with the pandemic have been restored, such as visits, and commissary, the self-harm numbers have continued to rise.
The situation, DOC officials and staff members agree, has been exacerbated by another problem: mass absenteeism.
On most days over the past few months, some 1,500 correction officers out of a citywide workforce of 8,500, were out on sick leave across the jail system, according to DOC records. Another 1,400 were on restricted duty, away from direct work with detainees.
“If we don’t have enough staff who are working… they are not properly seeing to issues that affect sucide,” Schiraldi said, noting that officers have been unable to get refresher training on suicide prevention.
“We’ve fallen behind on that because we are so thinly staffed,” he said. The lack of staff has also limited recreation, religious services, and programs, he added.
“All sorts of things start to fall by the wayside when there is not enough staff to make those things happen,” he said.
At the same time, prosecutors and judges are sending more people to jail.
The no-shows have forced those who do come to work to work double and triple shifts to guard an ever growing number of people — often with little to no food or backup. Some correction officers even reported having to sleep in their cars because they were too tired to drive home after work, prompting their union to launch a media campaign demanding more hires.
Schiraldi has urged officers to come back and is now requiring officers who call in sick be checked out by a city doctor within 24 hours. Some early improvements have materialized, with more officers returning to work, according to Schiraldi.
“There’s been a substantial decline in the number of new people calling out sick,” he said. The number has gone from approximately 300 people a day calling out sick in July to about 100 currently, according to Schiraldi.
‘Everybody Is Screaming’
The union representing city jail officers contends the de Blasio administration should hire at least 1,000 new officers. A new class of 600 recruits is set to begin training in October, Schiraldi told WNYC/Gothamist and THE CITY. The de Blasio administration originally only set aside funds for 400 new officers.
But a federal monitor overseeing the city’s jails found that the Department of Correction still had a relatively high staff-to-detainee ratio. The problem is not understaffing but poor roster management and staff deployment, according to the monitor, Steve Martin.
Still, the department’s difficulties in getting correction officers where they need to be has meant that incarcerated people cannot access basic services.
A recent report by New York Focus, for example, found that incarcerated people have missed thousands of medical appointments in recent months, with officers either unavailable or uninterested in making the trek through a maze of security checkpoints. In March alone, there were 12,914 missed medical appointments.
The staffing crisis also makes for abominable conditions in jail facilities, notes Kristy Hauke, a mental health clinician who worked at the Otis Bantum Correctional Center intake area at Rikers until this July.
“There’s about like 500 people jammed into one corral, getting zero attention. Zero,” she said. “The place smelled like actual shit because there’s actual shit happening. There’s piss everywhere. These guys have barely been fed. If they are fed a meal in like two or three days, that’s great.”
“Everybody in there is screaming,” Hauke added. “The guys are screaming. DOC is screaming. Everybody is telling each other off all the time.”
One former correction officer, who quit in August and spoke on the condition of anonymity because she would like to get another corrections position, said she almost never had enough staff to ensure detainees got their required medications. On one occasion, she recalled, after she opened the door to a jail pen in the clinic to let a detainee see a nurse, another patient charged at her.
“He needed to get out of the pen. He was irate. Everyone was so quiet,” said the officer, recalling how matter-of-fact such encounters had become. “The nurse would tell me, ‘Listen, this guy is not normal. He needs medication.’”
Increasing Danger, Mounting Suicides
Over the past nine months, the number of people behind bars taking their lives has gone up.
In January, 30-year-old Wilson Diaz-Guzman hanged himself from a sprinkler head in his cell at Rikers.
In March, 37-year-old Javier Velasco was found unresponsive inside another Rikers cell with a bedsheet wrapped around his neck.
Former Correction Commissioner Martin Horn sad jail officials must carefully look at each case and analyze where and when it happened.
“You have to pay attention,” said Horn, who led the department during the Bloomberg administration. “You have to really make it as important as all the other stuff you do at the jail. You have to be talking about it.”
Jail supervisors also must understand that it is a serious issue, he said.
“A lot of tend to think if an inmate wants to commit suicide he will,” he added. “You can’t have that approach.”
As for Rodriguez, he never told his parents he was locked up. They found out he died when his girlfriend reached out with the news.
Brandon was a “fun kid.” He loved to sing and dance, play games on his Xbox, and be the center of attention, his parents said.
“We have a video of him just three weeks ago playing a game and acting silly,” his mother, Tamara Cater, said through tears. “Even though he was 25 years old, he was a kid at heart.”