An inmate at Rikers Island prison died on Saturday, apparently from suicide, marking the 17th death there this year, surpassing last year's record.
Erick Tavira, 28, reportedly took his own life early Saturday morning, according to his lawyers. The New York Daily News reports that Tavira was arrested in June for attacking a teen boy without provocation and was being held on $20,000 bail. Tavira had been living in a homeless shelter at the time.
His death comes a month after Gregory Acevedo, 48, died in a 50-foot fall into the East River in an attempted escape from the Vernon C. Bain Center, a barge-turned-jail stationed at Rikers. He was awaiting trial for robbery.
Criminal justice reform advocates and New York City officials themselves have been trying to get Rikers Island shut down for years. The current plan is to shut it down in 2027 and replace it with four new jails. In 2021, the already struggling jail hit a full-blown crisis as thousands of correctional officers stopped showing up for work, compromising both prisoner and guard safety and depriving prisoners of food and medical care. That year, 16 prisoners held at Rikers died.
Federal monitors have gone to court to attempt to force a takeover of the jail. Even though Mayor Eric Adams says he supports closing the jail, the city has resisted a federal takeover and submitted its own reform plan that was accepted by a federal judge in June.
But since then, the death count has continued to climb. Tavira's death makes 2022 even more deadly than 2021, with two months still left in the year. A federal court hearing is scheduled for November that may determine whether to let the city keep operating the jail. The city is expected to show the progress it has made in efforts to stop these deaths.
Just a week before Tavira died, New York City Comptroller Brad Lander called for a transfer of control to a federal receivership, the first citywide elected official to do so.
"After so many years, and through the pandemic, the dysfunction has grown into an intractable emergency. There is little reason to believe that the current system or management can reform itself, and a receiver outside of many of those barriers holds the most chance of enacting the necessary changes for the basic safety of people incarcerated and staff," Lander said in a forum on October 13.
Lander has also published an online dashboard tracking monthly data on assaults, jail populations, and staff absences in the city's Department of Correction. Staff absences that contributed to last year's crisis at Rikers have started to decline, but they're still well above normal levels prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall assaults on staff and between inmates have dropped since last year, but slashing and stabbing incidents remain very high compared to pre-pandemic numbers. There were 38 slashings in August 2022 compared to just seven in just August 2020, for example. And the fact that the average daily jail population in the city has declined from 9,500 in 2017 to 5,700 as of September of this year, and that most prisoners are held in one of the many detention centers at Rikers, just makes the increase in deaths all the more notable.
What's worse, many of those who have died at Rikers this year were accused of crimes but had not yet had their day in court; they were being held in the facility on charges and awaiting trial.
When the government imprisons people, even those who have violated the rights of others, the government bears responsibility for their safety and well-being.