Family Blames ‘Disabled’ Inmate’s Death on Rikers Guards’ ‘Abuse’

·5 min read
Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

The family of a New York City man who died last year while being held at Rikers Island after being unable to post $1,000 bail filed a lawsuit on Monday, blaming the city for killing the 27-year-old through its own negligence.

At roughly 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 9, 2020, Christopher M. Cruz was found unresponsive in his cell at Rikers’ Anna M. Kross Center, a sprawling facility for male pre-trial detainees. He was pronounced dead 45 minutes later.

According to a copy of the suit obtained by The Daily Beast, Cruz suffered from asthma and schizophrenia. However, Rikers staff held Cruz in “restrictive housing” and refused to provide Cruz “with a reasonable accommodation for his disability,” which led directly to his death, alleges the filing, which does not specify precisely how Cruz died.

As of October, Cruz’s relatives said they still did not have any answers.

“Mr. Cruz, like too many of our clients, could not afford to pay bail, and, thus, he spent his final days confined to a cage,” the Legal Aid Society said in a statement at the time of Cruz’s death. “This is an all-too-common tragedy, the inevitable product of an unjust cash bail system that should outrage all New Yorkers… The lack of information his family has received thus far from the City about his untimely death is disturbing and only serves to engender suspicion.”

A DOC spokesperson declined to provide The Daily Beast with further information about the circumstances surrounding Cruz’s death.

“We have no publicly available records as to why this individual was held,” DOC spokesman Patrick Rocchio said in an email.

But NYC Department of Correction (DOC) Deputy Commissioner for Public Information Patrick Gallahue pushed back on one aspect of the suit, telling The Daily Beast that the Anna M. Kross Center, where the lawsuit says Cruz was being held, does not have restrictive housing.

In a separate statement to The Daily Beast, Nick Paolucci, a spokesman for the NYC Law Department, said, “The death of any person in DOC custody is tragic. We’ll review the legal case.”

The Cruz family’s lawyer, Clifford Ryan Tucker, told The Daily Beast that he was not at liberty to discuss additional details on the matter. Members of the Cruz family were unable to be reached for comment on Monday.

This Jail Was a Deadly Mess. Then Omicron Arrived.

At least 15 inmates died while locked up at Rikers during 2021. Rates of suicide and self-harm have skyrocketed recently, reaching their highest levels in years. At the same time, staffing shortages have created conditions some have called a humanitarian crisis. The Department of Correction’s oversight board has criticized Rikers officials for violating minimum standards on issues such as hygiene and the length of time new detainees are kept in holding areas.

The lawsuit over Cruz’s death, which was filed in Bronx County Supreme Court, claims Cruz “had made complaints of asthma and schizophrenia” since the day he was brought to Rikers. Cruz was prescribed medication for both conditions, according to the suit.

“Inmates in restricted housing, often including those with serious physical and mental health issues, are isolated in their cells for nearly all their waking hours,” the filing continues, adding that Cruz was “regularly…left alone in a cell for many hours at a time.” Ten correctional officers at Rikers, identified in the lawsuit as “John Does 1-10,” walked past Cruz’s cell “and did not verify that [he] was alive.”

“Had he been reasonably accommodated; he would have been detained in a readily observable cell and would be alive,” it states.

When Cruz was finally taken to see a doctor, officers were “negligent, careless and reckless in using excessive force,” the lawsuit says. Cruz was handcuffed and physically restrained before and during medical treatment, all while jail staff should have known that “using such excessive force, handcuffs, physical restraints and/or physical holds, and solitary confinement, on [Cruz] would exacerbate, accelerate and activate the medical injuries [Cruz] was suffering from at the time of the incident.”

The NYC Department of Correction does not properly train its officers to handle inmates with physical and psychological disabilities, and has a “long history [of] failing to comply with [the] Americans with Disabilities Act,” the suit claims.

It cites a December 2014 report the Legal Aid Society submitted to the city “providing extensive information about the dangers facing inmates confined in restricted or segregation housing, including the heightened dangers facing inmates with serious medical and/or psychiatric problems. No adequate remedial action has been put in place to address and correct the dangers faced by inmates with serious mental illnesses and serious medical problems in unsupervised confinement.”

Taken as a whole, the situation indicates “a conscious indifference to the clear risk of serious injury and death to [Cruz] that shocks the conscience,” the suit continues.

The city’s “actions were so shocking and outrageous that they exceeded all reasonable bounds of decency; actions caused [Cruz] to suffer severe emotional distress as well as serious physical injuries,” it concludes. “[Cruz] was also forced to endure physical intimidation and abuse; as a direct and foreseeable result of these actions, [Cruz] feared for his physical safety; as a direct and foreseeable result of these actions, [Cruz] suffered until the moment of his death severe emotional distress and actual damages in an amount to be determined at trial.”

Incoming New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a former NYPD captain, told the NYC Council last week that he would not acquiesce to their demands to end solitary confinement in the city’s jails.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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