This story was produced in collaboration with THE CITY and Columbia Journalism School’s Stabile Center of Investigative Journalism, as part of “MISSING THEM,” THE CITY’s ongoing collaborative project to remember every New Yorker killed by COVID-19. If you know someone who died or may have died due to the coronavirus, share their story here, leave us a voicemail at 646-494-1095 or text “remember” to 73224.
The last time Juan Cruz’ oldest son heard his father’s voice was during a phone call in late April from a jail barge floating off The Bronx’s southern shore, as coronavirus was spreading rapidly in New York City’s detention centers.
Cruz, a 57-year-old father of four, had been detained since early 2018 while awaiting trial for a crime he insisted he did not commit. On April 28, after testing positive for the virus, he was transferred to a unit that housed symptomatic, COVID-19-positive inmates on Rikers Island.
Between bouts of coughing and strained breathing during that call, Cruz told his son Juan Jr. that he feared for his life. His son assured him that he’d beat the disease, but had no way of knowing his father’s condition.
“He told me, ‘Take care of the family,’” recalled Juan Cruz Jr., who’s 38. “In Spanish, he said, ‘De esto no voy a salir’ — ‘From this one, I’m not going to make it out.’”
As his health worsened, Cruz was sent to the prison ward at Bellevue Hospital where he was kept on 24-hour watch by correction officers, even though he was on a ventilator and his arms and legs were “completely tethered” to his bed, according to a May 11 letter to his lawyer from a doctor at the city’s Division of Correctional Health Services.
“He is at risk of dying from this infection in the coming weeks,” Dr. Rachael Bedard wrote in bold.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Correction eventually freed Cruz from custody a little more than a week later, after his attorneys requested release on medical grounds. He remained on a ventilator at the hospital until he died on June 11, according to his family.
‘Only Three’ Deaths
Last month, Cynthia Brann, commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction, touted her agency’s track record with COVID-19.
“We have been one of the most successful correctional systems in the country,” Brann said. “Unfortunately, we had three deaths early on in the pandemic before we knew what was in our jails, but that was the only three.”
Yet while Cruz apparently contracted COVID-19 behind bars, he is not listed among the three inmates to die of the virus while in a Department of Correction custody. And his is not the only death to go uncounted by city jail officials.
Court and public records, accounts from attorneys and inmates’ families, and information obtained from correction officials by THE CITY and the Columbia Journalism School’s Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism show that the number who died after contracting COVID in city jails is at least six.
The uncounted include Raymond Rivera, whose death at age 55 on April 3 has been previously reported by The New York Times. Rivera had been jailed on a technical parole violation and, like Cruz, died in Bellevue Hospital.
And THE CITY has identified a third individual who died at Bellevue after being transferred from a city jail: Joel Howard, who died on April 16 at age 60 one day after his release, according to his lawyer.
Howard had been detained at the Manhattan Detention Complex since June 2018 while awaiting a trial on one count of first-degree burglary before he was transferred to the North Infirmary Command on Rikers Island in early May, then to Bellevue Hospital Prison Ward on April 12.
A lawsuit filed last month in Manhattan Federal Court suggests there could be additional deaths not counted by the DOC.
The Department of Correction referred questions regarding individuals’ fatalities to Correctional Health Services, which is part of the city Health + Hospitals system.
“From comprehensive testing, to social distancing in our facilities, we have taken every possible measure to keep all those who work and live in our jails safe throughout the pandemic,” Danielle DeSouza, a DOC spokesperson, wrote in a statement to THE CITY. “These measures have proved effective: transmission within our jails is, and has remained, lower than the citywide average.”
In information provided to THE CITY, Correctional Health Services acknowledged three patient deaths in custody.
COVID fatality numbers among those who lived in group quarters have come under intensified scrutiny in New York, after watchdogs and journalists forced Gov. Andrew Cuomo to acknowledge that nursing home residents died of COVID at double the numbers the state previously disclosed.
From the time it started sharing stats last April, Cuomo’s Department of Health had only shared numbers of those who died within the facilities — omitting those who died after transfers to hospitals, THE CITY reported.
‘A Death Sentence’
THE CITY on Monday revealed the findings of an unreleased report from the city jails’ oversight body on the three fatalities that took place while individuals remained in Department of Correction custody.
The Board of Correction, which oversees city jails, found crowded conditions, a scarcity of masks and denial of medical treatment all contributed to their deaths. The report notes that on the Bain barge — where Cruz contracted COVID — 50-bed dormitory areas “were always between 78% and 100% capacity” during March and into April.
Across the country, one in five people incarcerated in state and federal prisons have contracted COVID-19 and some 1,700 have died, according to The Marshall Project. In both California and Florida, more than 210 inmates have died from coronavirus and at least 187 inmates have been killed by the virus in Texas.
New York, meanwhile, has reported only 33 inmate deaths statewide and has one of the nation’s lowest coronavirus death rates among the incarcerated.
Last May, Board of Correction Chair Jennifer Jones Austin said in a public meeting that “the board has committed to reporting each death in custody publicly.”
Thus far, the Department of Correction itself has acknowledged but not released the names of the three inmates who have died of COVID in the department’s custody, one in late March and two in April 2020.
Sisters of a third man, Kevin del Rosario, provided testimony to the New York State Senate last September detailing a timeline leading up to his death at age 30.
Del Rosario died at Bellevue’s jail ward just six and a half hours before his sentence was to be vacated, his sisters told the Senate.
“His minimum sentence became a death sentence,” wrote Veronica and Annaliza Del Rosario.
Local public defender groups say there are likely more COVID-19 casualties than those the DOC had acknowledged. They seek to hold correction officials accountable for what they described as preventable deaths.
“We know that DOC’s claim of three deaths from COVID-19 in custody does not account for all of the people who died as a result of contracting the virus in NYC jails,” Kelsey De Avila, Jail Services Project Director at Brooklyn Defender Services, said in a statement. “We call for an independent statewide investigation into COVID-related jail — and prison — deaths, including people who contracted the virus while incarcerated but died after being released.”
Unreported deaths in city jails have also surfaced as an issue in federal court.
Last month, attorneys E.E. Keenan and Sonal Bhatia, as part of a lawsuit filed in Manhattan on behalf of eight former and current Rikers inmates, referenced “at least a few instances” in which an inmate was discharged from custody while at the Bellevue Hospital Prison Ward, moved to another part of the hospital and then died shortly after.
“Those people are not included in the total,” they wrote in a letter to U.S. District Judge Katherine Polk Failla — adding, “Plaintiffs welcome any information the city can provide.”
In their original complaint, filed in May, the lawyers alleged DOC consistently failed to “take obvious and easy-to-implement measures” against the coronavirus, such as enforcing mask mandates and daily testing of correction staff, and providing inmates with sanitary wipes and hand sanitizer.
The DOC made masking mandatory among its staff and prisoners congregating in common areas on April 3, 2020. Concerned about the safety of the jails, the Board of Correction audited security footage and found that throughout April not all staff members and inmates had complied with the masking order.
This and other failures, the lawyers said, led to the deaths of inmates, most of whom had not yet been tried. As of late February, 87% of the over 5,500 people in the city’s jails were in pretrial detention, according to data released by the Board of Correction.
“No one at Rikers Island has been sentenced to death,” Keenan and Bhatia wrote in court papers filed in January. “Most have not been sentenced to anything. But every person at Rikers Island, including the Correctional Officers, is on the equivalent of death row.”
‘The Safest Place’
Cruz grew up in Mexico and came to the U.S. as a teenager in 1979. He was deported once in 1983 and returned to the U.S. six years later, settling in Brooklyn with his wife, Delfina, and their four children. For 14 years, Cruz worked as a cook at Lamar’s Bagels on the Lower East Side.
In November 2017, an 11-year-old girl who frequented the deli came in with her grandmother. Cruz gave them some candy and a $5 bill for the girl, according to court records.
The woman urged her granddaughter to give Cruz a hug. The girl later accused Cruz of touching her genitals over her clothing.
Cruz was arrested two months later and charged with first-degree sex abuse, second-degree sex abuse, and a misdemeanor charge of endangering the welfare of a child, according to court documents. In an interview after his arrest, he told police that he knew the girl, said he hugged her but denied touching her inappropriately, court documents said.
Cruz was arraigned the day after his arrest and bail was set at $25,000. Cruz’s sons, Juan Jr. and Helmer, quickly came to their father’s aid and put up the money to pay a bail bond company to get their father out of jail.
After his release, Cruz returned to work at the deli, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents later arrested him at the store and sent him to an immigrant detention center in New Jersey.
“There was no reason why ICE had to detain him, zero reason,” Cruz’s immigration lawyer, Michelle Doherty, said. “He had been here forever, like where is he going to go? All of his family is here.”
Cruz remained at the ICE detention center in Kearny, N.J., until July 2018, when he was handed over to the Department of Correction on a $1 immigrant detainer, according to Doherty.
His lawyers said they requested the transfer in an effort to resolve his open criminal case and avoid risking deportation. He was then sent to the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center, nicknamed “The Boat,” to await trial.
At the beginning of his detention, Cruz tried to reassure his family, his sons said. “He was just too much of a person to worry us.”
On December 23, 2019, Cruz was offered a plea deal: Instead of the three charges he faced, he could plead guilty to one misdemeanor charge of endangering the welfare of a child, which carries a sentence of just under a year in jail, meaning he would have already served his time and could be released.
Cruz refused. He wanted to go to trial and be exonerated by a jury, his lawyer said.
“He didn’t want his reputation as a person, as a man, to be known as anything to do with any types of crimes,” said Cruz’s 28-year-old son Helmer.
The trial never happened. The hearings were pushed back six times between Jan. 8 and March 5 for multiple reasons, according to court records, including the death of a witness and the arresting officer’s inability to be at the trial because she had knee surgery. By mid-March, the city was seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases and hearings were canceled.
“He was already in New York City custody so we thought he was in the safest place,” Helmer said. “That was the safe haven.”
Too Ill to Discharge
In the first weeks of the pandemic, Cruz called his family and told them detainees were not given soap to wash their hands nor did they have enough masks for everyone, according to his sons. In late April, Juan Cruz Jr. said he got a call from his father, who reported feeling ill.
Cruz was one of 390 inmates at the Vernon C. Bain Center. By the end of April, 10 of the 16 housing units there had been designated for likely exposed inmates, said a Board of Correction report.
Cruz eventually got tested and on April 28, he was transferred to the Eric M. Taylor Center on Rikers, where five of the seven housing units had been designated for symptomatic inmates.
“He was too much of a man and he had a lot of pride and even if he suffered, at the end of the day we don’t know what he went through,” Helmer said. “So just us thinking about him being there alone and not knowing the language, and you’re in there for a hard accusation, it gets to us.”
By this time, nearly 10% of the 3,842 inmates in DOC custody had tested positive for coronavirus, according to an April 30 Board of Correction report.
On May 1, Cruz was transferred again, according to the letter from Bedard at Correctional Health Services — this time to the tightly guarded prison ward at Bellevue Hospital. His condition continued to deteriorate and he eventually had to be placed on a ventilator, Bedard’s correspondence with Cruz’s lawyer indicated.
The lawyer included the doctor’s letter in a motion he filed for Cruz’ release. The judge agreed, and on May 22, Cruz was released from DOC and ICE custody and moved out of the prison ward.
But because he was too ill to discharge from the hospital, he remained at Bellevue. His sons said that they believed their father would recover despite his worsening condition.
But Cruz remained unresponsive, except during one family visit when he moved his arm and opened his eyes after Juan Jr. kissed his feet. It was as if their father had been trying to speak, his sons said. They said they told the hospital to resuscitate him if his heart stopped, which happened multiple times.
On June 11, Cruz’s sons went to Bellevue with their mother. Usually, visitors were limited to just two per patient, but to their surprise, the entire family was allowed in. When told Cruz would likely die soon, they realized they were there to say their final goodbyes.
When asked if they wanted to take Cruz off the ventilator, the family refused, then stepped out of his room to pray. Moments later, Cruz was dead.
“I’m angry to this day and it’s hard for me to live my life on a day-to-day basis knowing that we feel like we let our dad down, which hurts the most,” Juan Jr. said.
“I don’t wish this pain on anyone because we’re over here, we’re taxpaying citizens, my mom’s a citizen,” he added. “We’re like anybody else in this city. We assumed the city would do its best to help fellow New Yorkers, but we didn’t see that with our dad.”