Forty-year-old Michael Nieves was pronounced deceased at Elmhurst Hospital last Tuesday, marking the 12th “official” death at Rikers. Department of Corrections (DOC) Commissioner Luis Molina announced a trio of employees were suspended over the incident.

“This is a painful loss. Losing a loved one who is incarcerated is traumatic, and we send our deepest condolences to Mr. Nieves’ family and all those he held dear,” he said. “A preliminary review of this incident required we take immediate action and suspend three uniform staff members. Any death in custody is a tragedy and we will be investigating the circumstances surrounding this incident.”

Nieves was in DOC custody since June 8. He was held at Anna M. Cross Center on four charges including first-degree burglary and second-degree arson. Initially arrested in March 2019, Nieves was found mentally unfit later in the year and sent to a state health facility. But another examination found him fit in November 2021, only for him to be found unfit again earlier this March. This past June, Nieves was once again found fit and subsequently, in the custody of the Department of Corrections.

According to the NYC Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), the death remains under investigation. Last week, the New York Daily News and The New York Times both reported Nieves attempted suicide by cutting his throat, with the suspended staff failing to respond accordingly.

“This is not the first time that officers stood by passively during a suicide attempt,” said Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and NYC Comptroller Brad Lander in a joint statement. “While some corrections staff are working intensely to improve health and safety on the island, others are actively undermining these efforts.”

“Regardless of declining staff absenteeism rates, city jails have no business operating as the City’s de facto mental health facilities. But because we fail to adequately fund mental health treatment year after year, more than a thousand people with serious mental illness are currently incarcerated.”

The Department of Corrections reports Nieves as the 12th person to die in custody. Others consider him the 13th, after Antonio Bradley attempted suicide at Rikers and died shortly after but not before he was granted a compassionate release. Last month, convicted neurologist Ricardo Cruciani was found dead in jail while awaiting his sentencing. But Campaign Zero executive director DeRay Mckesson wants folks to know an overwhelming majority of Rikers’ population are presumed innocent, until proven guilty.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize that Rikers is a jail…most people think Rikers is a prison, they think that it is a place that is holding people convicted of serious crimes,” he said. “And once we remind them that it is a jail, that the only trigger is a police officer—you just need one officer to arrest you. Just being arrested is enough to get you there.”

Mckesson, who became a national figure during the early stages of the Black Lives Matter movement, continues to fight for federal receivership over Rikers. The concept would remove government control over Rikers and appoint a third-party expert to oversee proceedings. He sees it as the only way of “fixing” the jail.

“We tried everything everybody else offered and it didn’t work,” said McKesson. “And this is the only thing on the table that actually sets us up for success and success is that people don’t die. This is a low bar. And people actually live long enough to go to court, is there is no more basic demand than that, right? The receiver, at least, will allow people to live long enough to see their day in court.”

Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps members and writes for New York City’s The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting:

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