He Waited 6 Hours for Medical Help. Then He Tried to Hang Himself.

The New York Times 1 week ago

The guards brought the 18-year-old detainee with a gashed lip into a special holding cell on Friday night. He had been injured after a fight with seven other inmates and was being transferred to an urgent care facility on Rikers Island.

What happened over the next six hours would plunge the jail and the city’s correction department into a crisis on Wednesday over the supervision of inmates, especially those at risk of suicide, at a time when the city is seeking to close Rikers.

Instead of being sent to the infirmary, the inmate, Nicholas Feliciano, who had a history of suicide attempts, spent hours in the holding cell, two people with knowledge of the matter said. The teenager started jumping from bench to bench without his shirt.

Then he tried to hang himself from a pipe with a piece of clothing, as several guards stood by without intervening for seven minutes, watching him periodically on a closed circuit television camera, the people said.

When he was finally cut down, it took paramedics at least a half an hour to get him out of the jail complex, one of the two people said. He remains at a hospital in a medically induced coma with no brain activity.

The incident has cast a spotlight on lapses in the supervision of people with mental health issues or who are suicide risks at the aging jail complex, which has long been plagued by violence, abuse, neglect and mismanagement.

Since 2016 there have been three suicides, including one last year. That figure has dropped from a high of six in 2003.

In October, the City Council approved a plan to close Rikers Island within seven years and to replace it with what officials envision as safer, smaller and more humane jails that will become a model for the rest of the country.

At least four guards have been suspended while the city’s Department of Investigation reviews the incident. Two more suspensions are expected, according to a senior city official with knowledge of the matter.

“This captures almost everything that’s wrong about Rikers Island,” said Councilman Rory Lancman, a Queens Democrat who supports changes to the criminal justice system. “A kid in jail with mental health issues not being appropriately treated — if that is not an argument for reforming our criminal justice system, especially related to Rikers Island, then I don’t know what is.”

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are conducting a preliminary review to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to open a criminal investigation, according to three people with knowledge of the matter.

The union representing corrections officers did not respond to requests for comment, but the union president, Elias Husamudeen, strongly denied to The Daily News on Wednesday that the four officers had stood idly by and watched while Mr. Feliciano tried to hang himself. “That’s preposterous, that’s almost criminal,” Mr. Husamudeen said. “That never, ever happened.”

The suicide attempt was captured on a video feed that the officers are expected to monitor periodically, according to several people with knowledge of the incident. The actions of the officers, including a supervisor, were recorded by a separate camera, the people said.

Lawyers with the Legal Aid Society, which represents Mr. Feliciano, said he had a history of past suicide attempts and mental health problems. The organization said the city jail system had a poor track record of protecting people at risk for taking their own lives.

“This outcome underscores the New York City Department of Correction’s inability to safeguard the youngest people in its custody,” Redmond Haskins, a spokesman for the Legal Aid Society, said. “It represents a colossal failure of supervision and leadership, one for which we demand answers before another New Yorker leaves the New York City jails in critical condition.”

Mr. Feliciano received youthful offender status following a robbery conviction, which meant he received a shorter sentence than an adult and his criminal record was sealed, officials said. He was released from state prison in October, but state officials said he violated the terms of his parole within weeks.

On Nov. 19, Mr. Feliciano was taken into custody when he visited his parole officer because he tried to purchase a gun, skipped assigned programs and tested positive for drugs, state prison officials said. He also traveled to New Jersey to see a girlfriend without permission, according to two people with knowledge of the matter.

Under the current system, people are immediately jailed once a parole officer arrests them for having violated the conditions of their supervised release. It can take weeks or months before a parole violator gets a hearing before an administrative law judge.

While Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has taken steps to shrink the city’s jail population, about 16 percent of the people in jail are there for parole violation, according to a 2018 report by the mayor’s office.

Mr. Feliciano was scheduled to have a hearing before an administrative judge on Dec. 20 on whether he should remain in custody.

At 6:23 p.m., on the day before Thanksgiving, correction officers brought Mr. Feliciano to a special housing cellblock known as the “intake” area at the complex’s George R. Vierno Center, said one of the two people with knowledge of the incident.

He had been in a fight and had a cut to his lip and bruises, the person said. The injuries were severe enough that guards thought he should be seen by medical staff at an urgent care center at the West Facility, another housing unit on Rikers Island.

At 10:11 p.m., Mr. Feliciano was taken out of a cell with another detainee and put in a cell by himself, the person said. An hour later, at 11:15 p.m., he was still waiting to be taken to the clinic and could be seen on surveillance videos holding onto the bars of the cell.

For the next 20 minutes, Mr. Feliciano climbed the benches in the cell with his shirt off, “acting in ways that should have been alarming,” the person said.

Then, Mr. Feliciano tied one end of a garment around his neck and the other around a pipe on the ceiling while standing on a waist-high partition separating a toilet from the rest of the pen, people with knowledge of the incident said. He stepped off the partition, but apparently had second thoughts as he began to choke and tried to put his feet back on the partition to save himself.

At 11:41 p.m., a captain rushed into the pen and brought Mr. Feliciano down from the makeshift noose, one of the two people said.

Mr. de Blasio said on Twitter the allegations against the guards was “deeply troubling,” noting the guards had been suspended.

“The people in our jails are human beings,” he said. “Their well-being is our responsibility.”

A former jails official briefed on the matter said the officers who watched Mr. Feliciano on the monitors were rookies. The former official said that the captain who rushed into the cell and cut the teenager down was off-duty. He had been in a security booth preparing to leave for the night when he saw what Mr. Feliciano had done. The official said Mr. Feliciano did not have a pulse for two minutes.

Mr. Feliciano remained in the Elmhurst Hospital prison ward on Wednesday, on a respirator with no brain activity. A person with knowledge of his condition said he had become less responsive to stimuli. As they left the hospital, Mr. Feliciano’s mother and grandmother declined a request for an interview, but said his condition had not changed.

Mr. Feliciano’s warrant on the parole violation was canceled on Wednesday, his lawyers announced.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said JoAnne Page, president of the Fortune Society, which helps former inmates make the transition back into their communities. “There’s a culture that treats people who are locked up as not having any value.”

William K. Rashbaum and Edgar Sandoval contributed reporting. Susan Beachy contribute research.

Tags: New York

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