Felix Taveras is the fourth-known person to die in (or immediately after leaving) Rikers Island. The 40-year-old was pronounced dead over the July 4th holiday after reporting a “medical condition.” He was held at the Anna M. Kross Center (AMKC) jail.

The NYC Department of Corrections (DOC) also revealed procedural violations were discovered while reviewing the death incident and plan to issue suspensions. 

Ricky Howell, 60, died at Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital Prison Ward—where male detainees receive long-term medical care—last Thursday, July 6. The Black New Yorker entered DOC custody with stage four cancer, where he ultimately but predictably spent his final days. In April, Howell’s legal team said he was suffering from multiple infections and at risk of more due to open wounds on his body. They also described his cancer as “advanced to the point that it is literally extruding from his body” due to protruding tumors. 

“Last night, we learned that Ricky Howell, our former client, passed away from a terminal illness at Bellevue Hospital in the custody of the New York City Department of Correction,” wrote a Legal Aid Society spokesperson. “Mr. Howell was known for his kindness and charisma, and we are both saddened by his loss and angered by the collective indifference from the individuals who condemned Mr. Howell to live out his final days incarcerated rather than in the community.

“While we are heartened that Mr. Howell had a devoted care team at Bellevue Hospital who treated him with dignity and respect, the judges and prosecutors on Staten Island who vigorously fought to keep him jailed despite knowing full well his medical condition and imminent death, and that he posed no threat to public safety, is truly disgraceful, callous, and devoid of any human decency.”

Richmond County District Attorney Michael McMahon fired back with his own statement, calling the comments a “mischaracterization” as Howell violated a plea agreement allowing him to spend his final days outside of prison while under the Intensive Supervision Program. 

“We empathize with the family of Ricky Howell as they grieve his passing due to illness,” said McMahon. “The death of any New Yorker is a tragedy, however, the facts and history of Mr. Howell’s journey through the criminal justice system clearly show our office’s repeated efforts, and Mr. Howell’s repeated failures, to lead a law-abiding life and to receive medical treatment outside Department of Corrections custody. 

“On two separate occasions, our office consented to Mr. Howell’s release from custody, and on both occasions, he failed to abide by every term of his release, and is alleged to have committed two additional burglaries in Queens.”

Howell pleaded guilty to third-degree burglary, the same non-violent felony charge Tavares was arrested on. They were also both charged in Richmond County. But while the debate over Howell’s detainment raged over his deteriorating health, Tavares was awaiting his next court date in August. Bail was set at $35,000 cash or $100,000 bond, according to the DOC. 

Tamara Carter—whose son Brandon Rodriguez died in Rikers—says bail is a “trap” for Black and brown households given the statistically lower median savings account balances, according to the Federal Reserve. 

“Right now, I only have $500,” she said. “God forbid any one of my other children get locked up. So you’re putting these high bails and you already know where we’re coming from. How are we going to have that money, or our families have that money?”

A progress report—stemming from 1975’s Benjamin v. Molina litigation filed by the Legal Aid Society—published last Wednesday, July 5 pointed to sanitation, fire safety and ventilation issues across multiple Rikers Island jails in 2023’s first quarter. 

The independent monitor, Office of Compliance Consultants, found shower mold and mildew at George R. Vierno Center, with live roaches observed both at the Robert N. Davoren Center and the AMKC. There were also 109 ventilation-related violations tallied by the monitor, compounded with the concern of COVID-19 and recent wildfire smoke. And a fire post—employed in the absence of smoke detectors at the West Facility jail—was “frequently” abandoned or understaffed, according to findings from the logbooks.  

“The monitor itself has complained and has been struggling to get access to a fair amount of data from the department, which we see as just another way in which the Department of Corrections is cutting itself off from public scrutiny,” said Legal Aid Society staff attorney Lauren Stephens-Davidowitz. “But even with the monitor’s limited access, the report is scathing. There’s still so much in there about just how awful things are.”

Advocates criticized the DOC last month after curbing “proactive” custody death notifications to the press, pivoting to an opt-in system, which the Amsterdam News is participating in. Information about Tavares’ death was provided over the federal holiday upon request while an incident report about Howell’s death was sent out. 

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 https://bit.ly/amnews1.

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