The CCTV footage tells a remarkable story: a man held on Rikers Island collapses and is carried to a medical clinic – not by the guard outside his housing unit, but by other inmates. The man, Herman Diaz, 52, who choked on a slice of orange, did not survive.
This week, the family of Mr. Diaz filed a lawsuit in federal court in Manhattan seeking $20 million in damages. The lawsuit is based on reports and court documents prepared by the city itself over the past two years, acknowledging that New York cannot adequately care for the people in its prisons. If successful, the lawsuit could provide a roadmap for more than two dozen other families whose relatives have died in custody.
The Rikers Island prison complex has been struggling for decades, but the coronavirus has exacerbated the suffering of those on the island, extending inmates’ stays while the justice system ground to a halt.
The virus hit correction officers hard in 2020, infecting more than a thousand and killing six. This led to widespread absenteeism, with thousands not showing up for work every day. The quality of life of the detainees steadily declined, jeopardizing their access to food, water and medical care. Since January 2021, 27 people have died while in custody or shortly after their release.
One of these was Mr. Diaz, whose death on March 18, like several others, is well documented by city officials. In May, a prison oversight board, the Board of Corrections, released a report on the circumstances leading to Mr. Diaz and two other inmates.
The Crisis on Rikers Island
Amid the pandemic and a personnel emergency, New York City’s main prison complex is embroiled in an ongoing crisis.
The report revealed that the officer who was outside Mr. Diaz was stationed, not allowed to work with prisoners and not to use the Heimlich maneuver, leaving the others living there to Mr. Diaz to the medical clinic. They passed other officers on their way to the clinic, but none of them gave Mr. Diaz medical attention. He died at 10:58 a.m., about 42 minutes after he started choking.
Sonia Talavera, the younger sister of Mr. Diaz, was in her kitchen when she got a call informing her of his death.
“I just broke,” she said. “I’m sure it could have been prevented. If they had the right equipment and the right people, they would have saved him. Many people are suffocating, and most people are saved.”
In a report released this summer, City Comptroller Brad Lander noted that claims against the Department of Correction had dwindled after peaking in 2017, and that payouts had fallen to $28.1 million in 2021, the lowest in six years. But, Mr. Lander noted, a recent influx of filings related to the division “could lead to higher payouts in years to come.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the city’s legal department, Nick Paolucci, said: “Any death in custody is tragic. The problems in prisons have been around for a long time and cannot be solved overnight.” He added that the city was committed to working diligently with a federal monitor who oversees the prison system “to implement lasting reforms.”
The report of the Correction Council in which Mr. Diaz is one of the documents in which the city has documented how she struggles to care for those in her custody. In a separate lawsuit filed on behalf of a class of detainees, the city acknowledged circumstances in which it could not guarantee access to medical care.
Lawyers say confessions like this will work to the advantage of plaintiffs like Mr. diaz. Julia Kuan, a civil rights and criminal defense attorney in Manhattan who has sued the city on behalf of incarcerated people, said they provided substantial evidence.
“All those confessions by the city are evidence that can be used in a lawsuit,” she said. “That’s strong evidence of liability.”
Indeed, lawyers for the family of another inmate who died in Rikers this year, Mary Yehudah, said they planned to record the city’s confessions about lack of access to medical care. “It plays a big part in the claims we will have,” said Ilyssa S. Fuchs, one of the attorneys.
“We can view many of the deaths we’re seeing at Rikers now, as they pile up one after the other, as evidence of a systemic collapse,” said Josh Kelner, who along with another attorney, Neil Wollerstein, Mr. Diaz’s family.