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Saturday, April 06, 2024

New York City Set to Pay a Record $28 Million to Settle Rikers Island Suit - The New York Times

New York City Set to Pay a Record $28 Million to Settle Rikers Island Suit

"Eight correction officers and a captain stood by for seven minutes and 51 seconds as Nicholas Feliciano tried to hang himself in a jail cell in 2019.

New York City/Department of Correction

New York City has agreed to pay more than $28 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the family of Nicholas Feliciano, who suffered severe brain damage after he attempted to hang himself in a Rikers Island jail cell as more than half a dozen correction officers stood by.

If approved by a judge, it will be among the largest pretrial settlements ever to be awarded to a single plaintiff in a civil rights case in New York City.

Mr. Feliciano was 18 and had a long history of psychiatric hospitalizations and suicide attempts when he was sent to Rikers in late 2019 on a parole violation. When he tried to hang himself on Nov. 27 of that year, guards watched as he flailed his arms but did not intervene even after he became limp, video footage obtained by The New York Times shows.

The Bronx district attorney filed felony charges against three of the guards and a captain in 2022. Last year, two of the guards pleaded guilty to official misconduct, a misdemeanor, and avoided jail time. The cases against the captain and the remaining officer are pending.

For the past four years, Mr. Feliciano has received round-the-clock care, first at the Bellevue Hospital Center and then at a rehabilitation facility where he must use a walker to get around, said his grandmother, Madeline Feliciano, 57. He cannot eat without assistance, has short-term memory loss and struggles to remember visits with family and friends or the things he did the day before, she said.

A young man wearing glasses sits with a walker.
Nicholas Feliciano suffered brain damage after he tried to hang himself on Rikers Island.Beldock Levine & Hoffman LLP

The proposed settlement, Ms. Feliciano said, will help his family care for him at home. A final decision in the case could come as early as next week.

“It is not going to bring Nicholas back to who he was,” she said, adding that, at 22, “he has to live with this injury for rest of his life.” 

A Correction Department spokeswoman said the agency has taken steps to reduce self-harm among detainees through renovations to housing areas, including the installation of fencing around units with multiple floors. She said officers are trained to prevent suicides and recognize signs of distress among mentally ill detainees and that specialists are assigned to people who have a history of trying to harm themselves.

But the New York City Board of Correction, a jails oversight panel, said in a recent report that many of the problems that had given rise to Mr. Feliciano’s case have only worsened.

Over the past three years, at least 18 mentally ill detainees have killed themselves or died of drug overdoses or other causes, records and interviews show. And the number of detainees with psychiatric needs has risen: About one in five people held on Rikers has some form of serious mental illness.

The New York Times obtained Department of Correction jail surveillance and body-worn camera footage that was gathered by a law firm, Beldock, Levine & Hoffman, which represented Mr. Feliciano and his family in their lawsuits against the city. Depicting the events leading up to Mr. Feliciano’s suicide attempt in a holding pen, and the inaction of correction staff members, the videos offer a rare look at what can befall mentally ill detainees on Rikers, where they are often subject to harsh conditions, inhumane treatment and inadequate supervision.

‘I’m bleeding, I’m bleeding’

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Body-worn camera and closed-circuit television footage synchronized by The Times show an attack on Mr. Feliciano by other detainees.New York City/Department of Correction

Mr. Feliciano’s lawyer, David B. Rankin, said the Department of Correction failed his client the moment he entered Rikers. Mr. Feliciano, who was diagnosed with clinical depression, was placed in a general population housing area known for gang violence instead of in a mental health unit. He was not initially given the antipsychotic medication he had been taking while at home. Mr. Feliciano’s case, Mr. Rankin said, “shows how the city has no ability to run a jail.”

Mr. Feliciano’s mental health needs had been recorded in meticulous detail, including during his first stint on Rikers in 2018, when at 16, he spent weeks on suicide watch and told staff about his bouts of depression. They were further documented when he received treatment on mental health units, and recorded again when he landed in a city-run juvenile center, where he had to be hospitalized several times for harming himself. He once cut himself, and using his blood, wrote “RIP” across the housing area plexiglass, according to a report by the Board of Correction.

Despite this history of psychiatric problems, Mr. Feliciano was rated as being at zero risk of suicide when he landed on Rikers in November 2019.

On Nov. 27, at about 5:30 p.m., Mr. Feliciano was attacked by several detainees. It was his second violent encounter in two days, occurring as he tried to help a friend who was being assaulted by several people. Video shows Mr. Feliciano bleeding from the left side of his body and mouth. Officers isolated him in a holding pen for hours as he awaited transportation to an urgent care clinic.

Making a noose in plain sight

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New York City/Department of Correction

Mr. Feliciano first appeared to begin searching the ceiling for a weight-bearing object at 11:26 p.m., according to still images of video footage.

Over the next five minutes, he fashions his clothing into a makeshift noose. One officer, Kenneth Hood II, stands directly in front of Mr. Feliciano’s cell for a full minute, watching as Mr. Feliciano ties his clothing to a U-shape hook in the ceiling, tests his weight against it and briefly wraps it around his neck. Then he unties himself, picks up a nearby plate of food and sits on a metal bench.

Alone and shirtless in the cell, Mr. Feliciano appears to tap the fork nervously against the plate. He grows agitated while speaking to a captain and two correction officers, including Mr. Hood, and he jumps up to throw the plate at them. The guards rush from the area.

The captain, Terry Henry, walks back past Mr. Feliciano, seeming to laugh and gesture toward him. Mr. Feliciano walks to the sweater he had attached to a ceiling fixture above the toilet. (It was the same ceiling hook that had been used in a suicide attempt by another mentally ill man, Angel Richards-Bailey, six days earlier, and it was supposed to have been removed by the time Mr. Feliciano was put in the cell, two people with knowledge of the incident said.)

Having already tied one sweatshirt to the ceiling, he climbs atop a partition to attach a second sweatshirt to the cell bars, video shows.

Seven minutes and 51 Seconds of inaction

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New York City/Department of Correction

What happened next was documented in a 2019 Times investigation of the incident, but the newly obtained videos offer a firsthand look at the inaction of nine jailers who stood by, walked past or glanced over at Mr. Feliciano’s cell for seven minutes and 51 seconds as he flailed at the end of the sweatshirts.

After climbing atop the privacy partition at 11:41 p.m., Mr. Feliciano wraps the sweatshirts around his neck and jumps down, video shows. Within seconds, he struggles to pull himself up, but the tips of his toes barely touch the floor.

Officer Daniel Fullerton, completing paperwork near a booth, occasionally looks over at cell 11 where Mr. Feliciano is hanging, but he does not intervene, video shows.

Officer Mark Wilson walks to the cell, opens the door, looks at Mr. Feliciano for a moment and then closes the door and walks away, video shows. At 11:43 p.m., officer Jean Lantigua-Peña, papers in hand, looks over at the cell, and officer Nicholas Prensa walks into and out of the area. Neither officer moves to help Mr. Feliciano.

A minute later, two paramedics pushing a man on a gurney enter the frame along with two other correction officers. Over the next three minutes the paramedics, Jimmy Guailacela and Stephen Sham, and correction officers, Sincere Crowell and Peter Moses, look in Mr. Feliciano’s direction several times, but do not come to his aid, the video shows. (Mr. Guailacela was promoted to lieutenant in 2021.)

The man on the gurney, Alfonso Martinez, was a friend of Mr. Feliciano’s, and he said in a previous interview with The Times that he shouted for someone to help but was ignored.

Six minutes after Mr. Feliciano jumped, Officer Hood and Officer Kostantinos Makridis walk past the cell toward a nearby door. Officer Makridis slows down, stops and leans in toward the cell bars to get a closer look at Mr. Feliciano’s motionless body.

Medical Attention

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New York City/Department of Correction

Three guards enter Mr. Feliciano’s cell. Officer Henry cuffs one of his wrists, while Officer Fullerton untwists Mr. Feliciano from the sweatshirts at 11:49 p.m.

They fall back as Mr. Feliciano crumples to the floor. Officer Makridis attempts chest compressions, but he places his hands in the wrong place, on Mr. Feliciano’s abdomen, until Captain Henry corrects him. Officer Makridis continues the compressions for about two minutes, frequently stopping then starting again, as Captain Henry and Officer Fullerton appear to fumble with a defibrillator.

Around this time, jail medical staff enter the cell and take over. At 12:45 a.m., more than an hour after Mr. Feliciano had tried to hang himself, paramedics place him on a stretcher to take him to a nearby hospital.

The Department of Correction’s investigations division later found that all nine of the guards who did not intervene had failed to do their job, records show. Six — Officers Hood, Makridis, Prensa, Fullerton and Wilson and Captain Henry — were suspended without pay for 30 days.

The Bronx district attorney charged four of the guards in 2022. Two of them, Mr. Fullerton and Mr. Wilson pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges. Mr. Fullerton resigned and Mr. Wilson was fired. The other two, Captain Henry and Officer Hood, are still awaiting trial.

After the guards were indicted, the correction officers’ union said that the case against them was “being driven more by politics than by facts.”

The cell where Mr. Feliciano attempted suicide.NYPD

Mr. Lantigua-Peña resigned in May 2020. Officers Moses and Crowell were charged with “procedural violations” by the department but were not suspended or put on modified duty and are still working in the jails.

Before they ever encountered Mr. Feliciano, seven of the guards had faced disciplinary charges and complaints from supervisors for offenses ranging from lying on official records and failing to supervise detainees to using excessive force and walking off the job.

Captain Henry, the supervisor who did not intervene as Mr. Feliciano was hanging, had been disciplined in a similar case in 2015, when, as a correction officer, he failed to help a man convulsing on the floor, according to a lawsuit. The man died, and the city settled the lawsuit for $1.59 million.

Captain Henry, who still works in the jails, has had at least 14 complaints or disciplinary charges over the years. Half of those complaints were logged in the years after Mr. Feliciano was on Rikers, jail records show.

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In 2019, eight correction officers and a captain at Rikers Island stood by for seven minutes and 51 seconds as Nicholas Feliciano, an 18-year-old, was hanging in a jail cell, video footage obtained by The New York Times shows. Feliciano suffered severe brain damage and requires round-the-clock care. New York City paid more than $28 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the family of Feliciano.

Jan Ransom is an investigative reporter on the Metro desk focusing on criminal justice issues, law enforcement and incarceration in New York. More about Jan Ransom"

New York City Set to Pay a Record $28 Million to Settle Rikers Island Suit - The New York Times

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