Rikers Island detainee dead after apparent jump at jail complex; was charged in Brooklyn murder

A Rikers Island detainee died after he jumped from a cellblock area on an upper floor of unit for mentally ill people, sources familiar with the incident said Wednesday.

Rubu Zhao, 52, suffered a skull fracture in the fall Sunday in PACE mental health unit 8B at the George R. Vierno Center, multiple sources told the Daily News. He died Tuesday night at Elmhurst Hospital.

Zhao, a native of China, is the second Rikers detainee known to have died in custody this year. He was arrested in December on charges of murder and illegal weapons possession in Brooklyn and had a May 31 court date. He was accused of killing his girlfriend in their Sunset Park home.

PACE units are supposed to have a higher degree of security and medical supervision to monitor the people held there than regular jail units.

A DOC source familiar with the incident said Zhao was not on suicide watch, and was allowed to move around within the unit.

The sources said Zhao swung his leg over a banister at a top tier stairwell, plummeted backwards down a set of stairs and landed on his head.

Officers responded immediately and called for medical help, officials said. Zhao was taken to Elmhurst hospital, where he died at 11:51 p.m. Tuesday, they said.

“I am saddened by the circumstances that led to Mr. Zhao’s passing and I offer my condolences to his family,” said Correction Commissioner Louis Molina. “The health and safety of everyone in our custody is a top priority and a full investigation is underway to determine how this unfortunate incident occurred.”

The incident remained under investigation Wednesday.

A copy of the preliminary incident report shows Zhao fell at 2:18 p.m. on Sunday, but the incident wasn’t reported until two days later, at 12:06 a.m. on Tuesday, according to a copy of the Correction Department’s 24-hour report obtained by The News.

The report is a carefully compiled log of major incidents in the jails. The reason for the discrepancy remained unclear Wednesday.

Advocates decried the death. “When is it going to stop? Rubu Zhao should be alive today,” said Victor Pate of the group HALTSolitary. “Relying on jails to address mental health needs is destined to fail. Yet, no one in a position of power has done a damn thing to release people to alleviate this crisis.”

The other detainee to die at Rikers this year was Marvin Pines, who died Feb. 4 after he was found unresponsive in a housing area at the North Infirmary Command.

Five correction officers were suspended in connection with Pines’ death. A preliminary Board of Correction report found that for three hours before Pines’s death, his unit was without an officer touring the floor as required by Correction Department policy.

Thirty-five people died in Correction Department custody during 2021 and 2022. Darren Mack of Freedom Agenda called Rikers Island a “death camp.”

“While the mayor gives lip service to investing in mental health, the number of people with serious mental illness locked up at Rikers keeps growing under his watch,” Mack said. “But instead of putting real funding behind his rhetoric, the mayor is planning to fund more death and dysfunction at Rikers at the hands of DOC.”

The PACE program — the acronym stands for Program to Accelerate Clinical Effectiveness — was created in 2015 and meant to increase the quality of mental health care for mentally ill people in the jails via Correctional Health Services.

The program is supposed to provide increased supervision for people held in those units.

In addition to PACE, DOC and CHS also operate CAPS — Clinical Alternative to Punitive Segregation — for detainees with mental illness who have broken the rules.

Correction officers assigned in those units are supposed to get eight hours of “Mental Health First Aid” training to spot signs of distress in detainees.

Officials with the city Board of Correction, which usually does a preliminary death review, did not respond to emails.