New York City has been reeling from the crisis at Rikers Island brought on by the pandemic, staff shortages, and years of neglect. Another incarcerated person who was housed at the jail died last Friday, Dec. 10, at a hospital after experiencing a “medical issue.” Malcolm Boatwright, 28, was the 15th death from the jail this year. 

Boatwright was in custody at the Anna Kross Center and then passed away at Bellevue Hospital. The medical issue that caused the death is still “under investigation” from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, said the city’s Department of Correction (DOC). 

Boatwright had been on Rikers for a little less than a month. The Associated Press reported that Boatwright was arrested on sexual abuse charges. 

The corrections department said that Boatwright is technically the 13th person to die in custody of the jail this year. Of this year’s deaths, one man died after being released from Rikers and another was taken off life support after attempting to hang himself in a holding area at Manhattan Criminal Court, reported the AP.

“This is a heartbreaking loss at the end of a very difficult year. My deepest sympathy goes out to Mr. Boatwright’s loved ones,” said DOC Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi in a statement.

On Dec. 6, just before Boatwright’s death, the corrections department put out press releases stating progress had been made in reducing the number of corrections officers on triple shifts or not coming in all together. They also said the data indicates a significant decrease in violent incidents, assaults on staff, fights and uses of force.

Schiraldi said in a separate statement, “We’re not declaring victory by any measure. But our hope is that these favorable numbers are early indicators of a positive trend that we can build upon to create a better future for staff and incarcerated people alike.”

The corrections department is focused on improving hellish conditions that were worsened by the COVID-19 crisis, reducing violence, speeding up intake, and getting staff vaccinated to meet the city’s mandates, said a spokesperson.  

Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice campaigns at Color Of Change, said that’s really all the corrections department can do to improve conditions but is skeptical of the numbers. “To be frank,” he said.

Roberts believes that the primary focus for district attorneys and elected officials should be to decarcerate Rikers Island as a way to scale back the concerning death toll. And not in a ‘close Rikers’ long-term plan, said Roberts, but an urgent decarceration strategy that doesn’t just shuffle incarcerated people around to borough jails.

“Earlier in the pandemic there was an effort to bring down the jail population to increase safety and that has really evaporated,” said Roberts. “One of the solutions to protecting people from the unsafe conditions in the jail is to stop sending so many people there.”

Roberts said that whenever possible district attorneys should be diverting people from jail and seeking out alternatives to incarceration. He has hopes that the incoming Eric Adams administration, as well as newly elected Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, can keep their campaign promises of solid criminal justice reforms.

According to a reported source, a possibly 16th person, William Brown, 55, died last night on Rikers.

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w

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Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here: bit.ly/amnews1

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