After Curtis Davis died in his cell inside a Rikers Island housing unit on July 23, internal Department of Correction records stated that he had been found unconscious on the floor shortly past 5 a.m. Corrections officials initially suspected his death was due to a drug overdose or heart attack, according to multiple jail insiders.
But since then the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which conducted an autopsy, has reached a different conclusion, ruling the cause of the death a suicide by hanging, OCME spokesperson Julie Bolcer told THE CITY.
The correction officer who first spotted Davis, 44, never mentioned anything about his body hanging or cutting him down in the internal report, obtained by THE CITY.
“The officer was conducting a tour and observed the inmate on the floor inside of the cell,” the report filed the day of the death said.
A veteran jail official familiar with the case called the report “vague” and noted officers are required to report if they cut someone down.
An assistant deputy warden accused of failing to properly tour the area has been suspended — and the housing unit was left without a captain that night, THE CITY reported last month.
“This is a tragedy that could have been avoided with something as simple as proper staffing,” said Adam Konta, a lawyer representing the Davis family.
The department is short approximately 100 captains, according to Patrick Ferraiuolo, president of the Correction Captains Association.
The DOC did not respond to an email seeking comment about the medical examiner’s finding.
On Tuesday, another detainee, Donny Ubiera, 33, was found “unresponsive” inside the same Rikers facility at approximately 5:15 a.m. He was pronounced dead at 5:51 a.m., according to DOC spokesperson Annais Morales.
Ubiera became the third detainee to die inside the George R. Vierno Center on Rikers this year. All told, eight detainees died in custody so far in 2023. In 2022, 19 detainees died, the highest rate in decades.
Officers and medical staff desperately tried to revive Ubiera, according to court records. They administered Narcan at least three times, according to internal department records.
The latest jail deaths come as a federal judge overseeing the department has agreed to hear arguments in favor of a third-party receiver takeover.
A receiver would likely have extraordinary powers and would not be obligated to honor collective bargaining agreements negotiated by unions representing jail officers and supervisors, according to legal experts involved in similar cases.
As for Davis, he was in jail on a $30,000 bond for allegedly stabbing a 29-year-old man in the eye, according to the criminal complaint.
In a sad twist, his son was also locked up on Rikers in the same facility when his father died, according to Konta, who noted they were in different housing units.
“He’s broken up. He’s grieving,” Konta said of Davis’ son, who is still detained there.
In September 2020, Davis was accused of shooting outside a woman’s shelter in the Lower East Side, according to Konta, who served as his defense attorney.
Davis confessed to the shooting but later pleaded not guilty and denied the charges, court records show.
He spent 18 months in jail before he took his case to trial in April 2022, according to Konta.
A jury ultimately acquitted him on five of the six felony charges related to the shooting. But he was found guilty of possession of an illegal gun discovered by police after they searched his apartment.
When he was released from jail he worked as an UberEats driver and in construction, Konta said.
“He was a family man,” his lawyer added. “He cared about his kids. He was really passionate.”
‘Far Too Slowly’
The most recent deaths at Rikers have intensified calls for a federal takeover, following eight years of negative reports from federal monitor Steve Martin.
The Texas-based jail watchdog in July criticized the department’s lack of transparency and asked the judge overseeing the case to hold the administration of Mayor Eric Adams in contempt for failing to implement basic policy recommendations.
More recently, Martin cited the 27 jail deaths since Commissioner Louis Molina took over at the start of the Adams administration in January 2022.
“While the Department has reported ongoing work to prevent in-custody deaths, the pace of this work has moved far too slowly,” Martin said in his 56-page report filed on Aug. 7. “Severe risks to the lives of people in custody remain, and housing areas across the department are rampant with security lapses that heighten the risk of serious injury or an in-custody death in every housing area.”
Martin noted that initial probes into the deaths this year resulted in the suspension of eight correction officers, four captains, three assistant deputy wardens, and one acting warden.
If you or someone you know needs help, dial 988 or call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also get support via text by visiting suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.