A death at Rikers spurs advocates to call for justice
DAVID KENE Special to AmNews | 2/1/2013, 2:53 p.m.
Early last Monday, advocates and community members began the week with a rally at 1 Centre St., home of New York City's Board of Corrections (BOC). During the rally, the group, under the name NYC Jails Action Coalition (NYCJAC), called out for justice on behalf of 25-year-old Jason Echevarria. Echevarria died in a solitary confinement unit on Aug. 19, 2012, at Rikers Island after fatally ingesting soap. Echevarria, who suffered from mental illness, reportedly swallowed the soap as a ruse to escape solitary confinement.
Unbeknownst to Echevarria, according to reports, the soap he ingested was concentrated (used to clean the cell block) and, like bleach, was fatal when ingested.
Details related to Echevarria's mental illness are unknown, as are details related to exactly why Echevarria's corpse was covered with bruises. The Department of Correction (DOC) initially attempted to label the death as a suicide, but the medical examiner recently determined it a homicide.
These bruises and DOC's alleged initial cover-up has evoked suspicion about everything surrounding Echevarria's death, including whether Echevarria willingly swallowed the soap.
Reportedly, Echevarria's death was the first of its kind in 2012. Yet, NYCJAC say DOC's overuse of solitary confinement does little to help prevent deaths like that of Echevarria's from occurring in the future. According to the group, Echevarria was just one of 1,200-plus adolescents who were collectively sentenced to more than 67,000 days (an average of 56 days per person) in solitary confinement between March and November 2012.
"One of the things that brought this group together was the expanded use of solitary confinement," said Jennifer Parish from the Mental Health Project at the Urban Justice Center. Parish is one of the vocal advocates of NYCJAC.
"We want the Board of Corrections to be more transparent about what happened. We want to know which correction officers were involved and how Jason died. We don't believe that anyone with a mental illness should be locked up in solitary confinement."
Another of NYCJAC's goals during their protest was to draw attention to Echevarria's story and to force the BOC, which oversees DOC, to investigate allegations of brutality and overuse of solitary confinement.
Following the rally, NYCJAC can claim partial victory in that goal. Last Monday, the nine members that constitute the BOC met for their first of six meetings scheduled for this calendar year. After the rally, members of the group attended the meeting, where they learned that an investigation would be taking place.
The BOC declined to respond to questions about the case by press deadline.
The NYCJAC is a grassroots collection of activists, including formerly and currently incarcerated people, family members and other community members working to promote human rights, dignity and safety for people in New York City jails. The group's mission includes increasing transparency in DOC policies in New York City jails and accountability for DOC practices and abuses; ending the use of solitary confinement (also known as punitive segregation, "SHU," "the Box," "the Bing") in New York City jails and opposing the DOC's planned increase in punitive segregation cells; addressing the medical and mental health needs of people in New York City jails; ensuring access to continuing care in the community upon release; advocating for more rehabilitative services inside jails to promote reintegration; and fighting against the racist and discriminatory policies that lead to mass incarceration.
The group meets regularly, with their next meeting to take place on Thursday, Jan. 31, for a span of two hours beginning at 6 p.m. at a place still to be determined. Interested parties can find out more about NYCJAC by visiting the website at www.nycjac.org or calling NYCJAC Outreach Coordinator Susan Goodwillie at 646-459-3063.