A detainee died early Thursday at the Rikers Island jail complex, hours before the federal official appointed to monitor Rikers issued his latest scathing report about the dangerous dysfunction that persists there. The death, of a 27-year-old man awaiting trial on robbery charges, was the ninth in New York City custody this year.
The monitor, Steve J. Martin, wrote in the report that the Rikers complex was “characterized by a pervasive, imminent risk of harm” to those in custody, and to jail employees, and that the “alarming conditions” appeared to have deteriorated since August.
“High levels of violence and fear among people in custody and staff remain a fact of daily living in every facility” at the complex, Mr. Martin wrote.
The report came amid the growing likelihood that the city could be forced to relinquish at least some control over its jails, which have been troubled for decades. They were plunged into their latest crisis in March 2020 with the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In July, the United States attorney in Manhattan, Damian Williams, called for an outside authority to take over the jails and address the breakdown at Rikers, which he said was the result of “a collective failure with deep roots.”
The federal judge who would decide on a takeover subsequently wrote that the current city administration, led by Mayor Eric Adams, had failed “to address the dangerous conditions that perpetually plague the jails.”
Mr. Adams and correction officials have argued against a takeover, saying the city is best positioned to fix the serious problems at Rikers. It is scheduled to close by 2027 and to be replaced by four smaller jails under a plan approved by the City Council.
A Correction Department spokesman did not have an immediate response to a request for comment on the latest monitor’s report.
While fighting against ceding the city’s authority over the jails, Mr. Adams has also expressed opposition to the existing plan to close Rikers, which he has referred to as “flawed” because of its projected cost, and what he says are inadequate provisions for housing the current jail population.
As of Wednesday, officials said, there were about 6,150 people in Correction Department custody. Most were awaiting trial.
Mr. Martin said in the report issued on Thursday that his team had found a “continuing lack of urgency” on the part of city officials to address, among other things, basic security practices and staffing shortages. In addition the monitor found an abdication of control over Rikers’ housing units; a persistent failure to adequately identify misconduct by employees; and efforts to impede his work.
A summary of one recent week’s worth of incidents included in the report underscores the scope of the problems at Rikers. Still, Mr. Martin wrote that “given the concerns about the veracity” of Correction Department’s accounting of what happens at the jail complex, the list might not “fully capture all that occurred during this time period.”
According to the report, during that period, from Sept. 11 to Sept. 17, there were 145 uses of force; 12 stabbings or slashings; 74 fights among detainees; 48 people who engaged in self-harming behavior; three medical emergencies; five people who received the overdose-reversal medication Narcan; 15 fires; 34 assaults on staff members; and 19 serious injuries. A significant amount of contraband, weapons, drugs and cellphones was also recovered.
Mr. Adams and the correction commissioner, Louis A. Molina, have cited a drop in stabbings and slashings over the past two years as evidence that the city is making progress in stemming the violence at Rikers.
The recently released Mayor’s Management Report showed that there were 387 stabbings and slashings in the city’s jails in fiscal year 2023, down from 491 the year before, but up from 106 in fiscal year 2019. (The city’s fiscal year runs from July to June.)
As for the death on Thursday, a Correction Department spokesman identified the man who died as Manish Kunwar, who had been in custody since Sept. 27. He was found unresponsive at the complex’s Eric M. Taylor Center and pronounced dead shortly before 6:30 a.m., the spokesman said.
His cause of death is to be determined by the city’s medical examiner. A correction captain and a correction officer were suspended without pay in connection with the death, the department said.
In a statement, the Legal Aid Society called Mr. Kumar’s death “tragic” and condemned what it called the Correction Department’s “continuous failure to ensure the well-being of those New Yorkers in its custody and inability to administer basic jail functions.”
The nine deaths in Correction Department custody this year come after 19 people died last year while, or immediately after, being held in the city’s jails.
Jonah E. Bromwich and Jan Ransom contributed reporting.