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Family of Rikers Inmate Who Died Settles Lawsuit Alleging Neglect for $2.1M

The city’s payout is the latest in a long list of seven-figure settlements made after jail-related deaths.

SHARE Family of Rikers Inmate Who Died Settles Lawsuit Alleging Neglect for $2.1M

Joseph Foster, left, seen with his brother, Wendell Pittman.

Courtesy of Foster Family

The family of a Rikers detainee who was ignored for nearly an hour before he died in custody from a brain hemorrhage agreed to settle a lawsuit against New York City for $2.1 million, THE CITY has learned. 

Joseph Foster, 51, begged to be taken to a medical clinic inside his cell in the Eric M. Taylor Center on Rikers on Dec. 30, 2017, beginning at 7 a.m., according to jail records and a witness account. 

Foster’s family argued he’d still be alive if he’d been given proper medical care. 

“This tragedy, which happened in 2017, should be a reminder that what’s happening at Rikers now isn’t new — it’s a product of the longstanding neglect, dysfunction, and unchecked culture of callousness at the facility,” said Josh Kelner, the family’s lawyer. 

Three detainees have died behind bars this year, including two last week, George Pagan and Herman Diaz. Sixteen people died in Department of Correction custody in 2021, the highest total in years. 

In Foster’s case, a jail captain took close to an hour to move him to the medical clinic in the facility, an inmate in the area told the Daily News in 2018, shortly after the fatal incident. 

“He kept screaming, ‘I need a doctor! I need a doctor!’” fellow detainee Carlos Renta recalled. 

Foster arrived at Elmhurst Hospital at 10:23 a.m. and was dead five days later. An autopsy revealed he died from pontine hemorrhage, a large bleed on his brain, according to the city’s Medical Examiner. 

When he was first brought into custody, his lawyer at the time told the judge handling his case that he suffered from high blood pressure and diabetes and would need additional medical care, court records show. 

On Thursday, Wendell Pittman, Foster’s older brother, said he’s still grieving. 

“I miss seeing my brother at our get togethers,” he told THE CITY. “I miss being able to give him encouraging words.  I miss being able to laugh with him.  I would have given him anything without hesitation and it’s so hard for all of us that he’s gone and won’t be there to grow old with us.”

Skepticism Greets DOC Budget

The settlement comes a day after DOC Commissioner Louis Molina was grilled during a City Council budget hearing. 

Molina on Wednesday said the beleaguered department would need funds to hire additional officers to implement a new system to limit the use of solitary confinement this summer. 

“As we’re moving forward with a new restrictive housing model, we’re going to need more resources,” he told lawmakers, noting the department has nearly 2,000 fewer officers than it did in 2019.

The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association has been urging the Adams administration to hire an additional 2,500 officers. 

But jail experts and former commissioners argue that hundreds of officers assigned to posts outside of jails can be reassigned. The department has also struggled to keep up with staff who call out sick or say they’ve been injured. 

There were 1,400 officers on average out sick each day last week, according to jail records. 

Molina’s push for more officers was slammed by some City Council members. 

Councilmember Carlina Rivera, Feb. 24, 2022

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“Adding staff has been proven not to address the underlying issues in the department or improve conditions in Rikers,” Councilwoman Carlina Rivera (D-Kips Bay), chair of the Criminal Justice Committee.

A federal monitor overseeing the department has said that additional staff frequently exacerbates violent confrontations with multiple officers piling on top of detainees. 

A special report by the monitor, Steve Martin, also said that some of the recent violence behind bars was going on because officers were “off post.” 

During the City Council hearing, Molina was unable to answer questions about the number of unmanned posts, wait times for medical appointments, and how many officers were facing discipline for sick leave violations. 

“How do we in the City Council vote in good faith to increase the DOC budget when you don’t have answers that prove the efficacy of the programs that you want to continue doing?” asked Councilmember Chi Ossé (D-Brooklyn). 

Costly Practices

The city’s payout to the Foster family is the latest in a long list of seven-figure settlements made after jail deaths. 

The family of a man slain by a mentally ill fellow Rikers Island inmate has agreed to settle a lawsuit against New York City for $1.65 million, THE CITY reported in February 2021.

Artemio Rosa strangled Casey Holloway on July 9, 2018 as the 35-year-old victim sat on a chair in the jail complex’s Anna M. Kross Center.

A protester holds a sign with names of people who died in city jails at a rally against cash bail outside the Manhattan district attorney’s office, Oct. 6, 2021.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

In August 2021, the family of Layleen Polanco, who died from a seizure in solitary confinement on Rikers Island, agreed to settle a lawsuit against the city for $5.9 million. The settlement tied to the June 7, 2019 death was a record for an inmate’s death in a New York City jail, THE CITY reported.

The number of personal injury claims against the Correction Department has exploded over the last decade, from 1,188 in fiscal year 2010 to 3,350 in fiscal year 2020, according to the city Comptroller’s Office.

Payouts over that period have spiked from a total of $8,504,000 in 2010 to  $27,979,050in 2020, the comptroller’s claim report shows.

“Any death in custody is a tragedy,” said city Law Department spokesperson Nicholas Paolucci, referring to the Foster case. “Settlement of this case was best for all parties.”

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