Rubu Zhao is the second person to die on Rikers Island this year. The 52-year-old was “severely injured” while detained at the George R. Vierno Center (GRVC) jail and was pronounced dead at Elmhurst Hospital two days later last Wednesday, May 16. 

“I am saddened by the circumstances that led to Mr. Zhao’s passing and I offer my condolences to his family,” said NYC Department of Corrections (DOC) 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.”

Zhao came into DOC custody last December and was reportedly awaiting trial. His lawyer, Jonathan Fink is currently unavailable to speak but agreed to talk to the Amsterdam News after press time. The story will be updated online to reflect any such changes. 

Marvin Pines was the first person to die on Rikers this year, passing in February. He was 65 years old and suffered from seizures. Last year, 19 people died in or immediately after release from DOC custody. 

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According to the New York Daily News, Zhao’s injury stemmed from falling in a mental health unit. Rikers Island is often regarded as the city’s “largest psychiatric care facilities.” The Mayor’s Office reported half of the city jail’s population were diagnosed with a mental health condition last year. 16.2% of detainees had serious mental illness. Jordan Neely—the unhoused Black New Yorker killed on the subway by white vigilante Daniel Penny earlier this month—struggled with his mental health and was formerly detained on Rikers for over a year. 

Jail population review bill Int 0806-2022 was passed by the City Council earlier this month. If signed by Mayor Eric Adams, the proposed legislation would allow the city to evaluate detainees eligible for release which would include accessing their mental and physical health. 

The bill is just the most recent move to clear the city jail population with Rikers’ slated and legally-mandated closure in 2027, according to sponsoring councilmember Carlina Rivera. Replacing the complex will be four borough-based jails with significantly less detention capacity. 

“Streamlined case processing is just one way we can reduce unnecessary, even harmful jail time, imposed on New Yorkers,” said Rivera in her statement. “The city’s failure in managing the jails on Rikers Island and the historic number of deaths last year is partly driven by hollowed out healthcare and social services systems that leave too many vulnerable to crisis.”

This Thursday, March 25 also marks the 30th birthday of Kalief Browder, the Black New Yorker held at Rikers as a teenager over a missing backpack. Browder ultimately took his life two years after release. 
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for 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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