2021 began with Rikers Island in a miserable state, with every indication that conditions would soon get much worse. COVID was spiking. The staff was depleted, and the jail was getting more crowded. In January, its population rose above 5,000 — an increase of more than 25 percent from the spring of 2020. After nearly two years without a suicide at the facility, a man hanged himself before the month was out. A gruesome incident followed in early March, then another suicide, then an overdose. The people incarcerated at Rikers continued to die at such a steady rate that the agency charged with investigating deaths in custody couldn’t keep up.
Rikers is a complex of jails, not a prison. A small number of people are serving short sentences for misdemeanors or parole violations, but the vast majority are waiting for trial. Many are there because they can’t make bail. Ninety percent are Black or brown. Their alleged offenses range from graffiti and shoplifting to rape and murder. They are innocent until proven guilty, though no one treats them that way. The city spends an annual $550,000 per incarcerated person, compared with $28,000 per student in its public schools, for conditions that a court-ordered monitor described as “rife with violence and disorder.”
On March 17, an officer named Timothy Hodges testified to the Board of Correction, the body that oversees Rikers, that the jail was facing a personnel crisis and could not provide a basic standard of care. “We’re trying to point out to upper management and to additional people like you that we’re doing our best and we’re trying to make this work,” said Hodges. But the staff shortages, he predicted, would lead to chaos.
In May, officials were forced to lock down the island’s largest jail, the Anna M. Kross Center, which houses those with mental illness, because too many posts were unmanned. Later that month, the Department of Correction commissioner resigned hours before a federal monitor assigned to oversee Rikers issued a scathing report. Men were sleeping on the floor of intake cells and defecating in plastic bags. Violence was rife, inflicted by inmates and guards alike. Emergency “probe teams,” with officers dressed in riot gear and wielding batons and pepper spray, regularly burst in to suppress disturbances. Banging their heads against walls, slashing their wrists, attempting suicide — detainees were harming themselves at the highest rate in five years.
In July, the correction-officers union sued the city over working conditions. Officers told reporters they feared the place; more than 90 percent of the staff at Rikers are people of color, and nearly half are women, who endure harassment and assault. “We feel like we’re the forgotten souls,” union president Benny Boscio Jr. said. More than 1,000 correction officers had resigned in the previous two years.
Through the summer, crime and fear of crime were rising, prosecutors were pushing for lockups, and Rikers detainees kept dying. On any given day, nearly one-third of the staff were out sick, unable to work with detainees because of injury, or simply AWOL. In early September, the jail system’s chief medical officer sent a bracing letter to the City Council. “While some might ascribe recent deaths … to long-standing dysfunction of Rikers Island, it represents a new and worsening emergency that has developed over the course of the last year,” Ross MacDonald wrote. Jail conditions had “meaningfully contributed” to the deaths, he said. In his opinion, the city could no longer keep its staff or the people in its custody safe.
There were, toward the end of the year, a few signs of progress. Governor Kathy Hochul signed the Less Is More Act, authorizing the release of 191 detainees with technical parole violations. The Rikers staffing crisis began to ease. “I’m not popping a Champagne cork,” said the new commissioner, Vincent Schiraldi, on December 1. But things were “bending in the right direction as the population declines.”
On January 1, Rikers and its problems will be inherited by the new mayor. Eric Adams has called the complex a “national embarrassment” and a “stain on our city.” He has signed on to a plan to close Rikers by 2027 and replace it with smaller jails in each borough and said he will restore rehabilitative programming in the meantime. He has also promised to bring back solitary confinement, despite the opposition of 220 advocacy organizations, 74 state lawmakers, and all 12 of the city’s Democratic congressional representatives.
Confronting the omicron variant will surely be Adams’s first order of business. After hovering around 1 percent for months, the COVID-positivity rate among detainees shot up to 17 percent on December 21. That means an end to in-person visits, curtailed programming, and, likely, more staffing shortages. Things will get worse before they get better.
In all, 15 people died at or shortly after leaving Rikers in 2021. (Another man in custody died before he could be sent to the island. His name was Anthony Scott.) They are, of course, more than statistics or symbols of a broken system, and we spent the last two months of the year talking to family, friends, attorneys, city officials, correctional staff, doctors, and incarcerated men — some 75 interviews in all — to learn their stories. These are their lives — and how they came to an end.
At a church in Harlem one day last winter, a woman named Maria asked the congregants to pray for Wilson Diaz-Guzman. Not long after, she showed up in the priest’s office, sobbing. Diaz-Guzman was dead. The following week, the Sunday service was dedicated to his memory.
It was the only public marker of his death — there were no news articles, no pictures in the paper. His survivors were reluctant to talk to us. Diaz-Guzman was an immigrant and spoke little English, and it is possible that while he was alive, his invisibility was necessary for his survival.
Diaz-Guzman had arrived on Rikers Island on January 17 to await trial on a charge of sexual assault against a child. Over the next several days, he expressed thoughts of killing himself. Someone with knowledge of his case said that he acted strangely in the cell where he’d been placed alone; that his mattress was removed and that he stood on the metal bed frame; that he ranted. Some people in the unit later said he was asking for his medication. A lawyer has filed a notice of claim on his family’s behalf, the first step in bringing a lawsuit against the city. Among the reasons for the suit are false arrest and imprisonment and denial of medical care. On the fifth day, Diaz-Guzman hanged himself from a sprinkler head.
A “hang up,” the correction officers call it. Each of them is issued a metal hook for the express purpose of cutting people down when they hang up. “The officers, they’re supposed to sharpen the hook once a month, but they don’t, so the blade is dull and they’re sawing away,” says Allen Chey King, a detainee who worked for a year as a suicide-prevention aide, making the rounds to disrupt attempts in progress. The protocol was to yell while holding up the body. He came across three people hanging up in his time as an aide. He quit the program, he says, because it was a losing battle with officers who didn’t care. He didn’t want to have someone else’s death on his hands.
Illustration: Chuy Hartman
Tomas Carlo Camacho arrived at Rikers in August 2020 after assaulting a mental-health clinician in the Bronx. He had been diagnosed with schizophrenia; he spent five weeks in Bellevue’s prison psych ward before returning to Rikers in early 2021. One of the men who got to know him there was Allen Chey King. Camacho didn’t speak much English, but the two detainees connected because they both read the Bible. “Tomas was a really humble, quiet man,” King says.
On March 2, King saw Camacho in the bathroom, dizzy and disoriented after falling and hitting his head. Someone reported to an officer that he needed medical attention. An officer then put Camacho into a holding pen in the intake area, where he was left for seven to eight hours.
These pens are smaller than a regular cell, with no bed, toilet, or water. They are famously filthy — urine on the floors, feces smeared on the windows. Inmates have to call a guard to relieve themselves, except the guards are on the opposite side of the building, so they often don’t hear.
Somehow, Camacho got his head caught in the slot of the door. The space is horizontal, maybe six inches high, just big enough for a tray of food or two hands to be cuffed. When COs found Camacho, his heart had stopped. They got it beating again and transferred him to Elmhurst Hospital, but his brain had been deprived of oxygen for too long. Someone reached Camacho’s son, Kevin Carlo, at home in Australia via FaceTime. Carlo took a screenshot: his father in a hospital bed, an oxygen tube under his nose, eyes closed. Soon he would be taken off life support. The medical examiner later gave the cause of death: complications following cardiac arrest. He categorized it as a suicide, but Carlo was told his father got his head trapped while he was calling for help.
Camacho, right, and his son.
Photo: Courtesy of Kevin Carlo
“My dad wasn’t just a nobody,” Carlo says via Facebook message. “He was a role model to me and many of my friends in many different aspects, like ‘obey & protect your mother,’ ‘don’t trust everyone on the streets,’ ‘finish school,’ ‘study something.’ ” Carlo is especially bothered by one thing. When doctors realized Camacho wouldn’t live, they arranged for compassionate release. This was probably meant as a kindness; he could be unshackled, and officers could leave his room. To Carlo, it’s an insult. His father was freed only when they knew he was a dead man.
Illustration: Chuy Hartman
Javier Velasco met Amanda Holland Van Stry in January 2016, when the radiator in her co-op needed fixing and Velasco, an assistant super, claimed the ticket. “I still remember the first time I saw you,” he wrote in the suicide note he left for Van Stry five years later. “I knew I was fucked. I fell in love with you that exact second.”
Velasco was a popular figure at the apartment complex in Queens: gifted with a saw, quick to lend a hand to older residents. Van Stry, who was 39 at the time, had left her job running fashion advertising for Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s to focus on her young children and managing her multiple sclerosis. On their first date, Velasco surprised Van Stry by talking to her about MS and the supplements she should be taking. After a few months, he moved in.
It worked for a while. There were trips to bowling alleys and Niagara Falls. But things changed when the woman Velasco had previously lived with, the mother of his 2-year-old son, took the boy and moved away. Velasco started to drink more; he became convinced Van Stry would leave him for someone more successful. Their arguments could turn scary and physical. “I can’t count how many times I had him arrested and took him back,” she says. Everyone in their lives agreed that the relationship was toxic. But the couple couldn’t seem to end it. “He showed so much good and so much love,” Van Stry says. In 2017, he sent her a valentine from Rikers with a rose sculpted from toilet paper.
A letter Velasco sent to his wife. The flowers were drawn for him by another inmate.
Photo: Andy Zalkin, Courtesy of Amanda Holland Van Stry
In June 2018, during a fight, Van Stry fled into a restaurant, and Velasco punched the owner. He spent nine months at an alternative incarceration facility, a “shock” program with exercise, substance-abuse treatment, and life-skills classes. Velasco said it was grueling — officers taunted him with lewd stories about what his girlfriend was doing with other men — but when he got out in December 2019, he stuck to the routines he had learned, like exercising, journaling, and meditating. He started a home-renovation business, and on March 3, 2020, Velasco and Van Stry married at City Hall. They each brought one friend. Their relationship had long ago worn out everyone else in their lives.
When COVID arrived, Velasco homeschooled the kids and took care of Van Stry, carrying her to the bathroom when her symptoms flared. But his work dried up, and he started bringing home six-packs. Velasco accused Van Stry of cheating on him, even though she never left the house, and threatened to kill her if he caught her. After he was arrested for breaking into her home during a separation, Van Stry filed for divorce in September 2020. “The system didn’t want to let me go but also didn’t want to get me help,” Velasco later wrote to a niece. “They think just sending me to jail for months or years helps. Clearly it doesn’t.”
At Niagara Falls in 2017.
Photo: Courtesy of Amanda Holland Van Stry
Velasco was arrested again for leaving threatening messages on Van Stry’s phone. On March 5, he called her from Central Booking to say he was going to kill himself. He repeated the threat twice over the next ten days. Van Stry, who knew Velasco had made an attempt once before, called his parole officer and the assistant district attorney. He’s manipulating you, they told her. She called the assistant DA’s boss. He asked, “Do you want me to have your number blocked?”
On March 16, Velasco tried to hang himself in a Rikers bathroom, but a CO cut him down. He was put on suicide watch until, after 24 hours, someone signed off on ending it. It’s unclear why. Perhaps there simply weren’t enough staff. On March 19, Van Stry drove to the Bronx for a court hearing only to find it was called off. As she arrived back at her apartment, her phone rang. “Amanda?” the assistant DA said. “I’m so sorry.”
In one of her last conversations with Velasco, Van Stry had pleaded with him to let the court send him someplace to get help. “There’s no help,” he’d said. “There’s just jail.”
Illustration: Chuy Hartman
When Thomas Braunson III was a boy, he used to cry himself to sleep asking for his father. Thomas Jr. was an addict, and Sharon Gross-Gill, Tommy’s mother, would rub his back and say, “Your daddy loves you. But right now he’s sick, so he can’t even show himself love.”
Tommy and his mother lived for a while with her aunt in the Jacob Riis Houses on the Lower East Side. Gross-Gill’s aunt had a daughter, Amanda Jones, and the two kids grew up like siblings, jumping on the red couches in the living room that looked out onto the East River. In his early 20s, Braunson started caring for his great-grandmother, who was blind — feeding, bathing, and walking her to church, accompanied by his pit bull. It was after she died, Jones says, that Braunson started getting high more regularly. He still got up each morning to go to work — as a sanitation worker, for the Port Authority, in construction — but he would also do stupid things, like shoplift, and he bounced in and out of prison for a decade.
Braunson told his mother that he knew he was disappointing her, and one fall day a few years ago, he checked into rehab. That day, his father entered the facility too. They had been seeing each other and talking about getting sober, but it was pure coincidence that they ended up in the same place at the same time.
When Braunson learned his girlfriend was pregnant, he confided to Jones that he was terrified of being a deadbeat dad. He and his girlfriend were in a bad cycle; one would start using, triggering the other to relapse. His family hoped that the baby, Vinessa, would be the thing he needed to get his life together. But soon enough, Gross-Gill got a call. Braunson was bound for Rikers. “Just because you had a step backward,” she said, “does not mean that that’s the direction of your life.”
With his daughter, Vinessa.
Photo: Courtesy of Sharon Gross-Gill
When he arrived, he was put in an intake pen crammed with other men. These spaces are meant to hold people, for a few hours, 24 hours max, until they’re assigned a bed. Braunson spent three days there. The men weren’t fed; they weren’t given medication. Some were dope sick. They tried to sleep, taking turns lying on the floor amid the vomit.
On the day Braunson was finally transferred to his housing assignment, he must have scored the cocktail of heroin, fentanyl, and PCP that would kill him. But first he called his mother. “I just want you to know that I’m all right,” he said. She told him to hold his head up, to remember who he was. She said, “I love you, baby.” And he answered, as he always did, “I love you more.”
Illustration: Chuy Hartman
Richard Blake and Shersharna Stewart met in 2012 at a speakeasy in Flatbush. “He looked kind of like a nerd,” she says. “Not at all what you would expect.” Stewart learned that Blake made his living off the street’s shadow economy, like a lot of guys she had grown up with. But Blake was fun — he always had music on or was wisecracking — and he was considerate in small, surprising ways. When Stewart, a nurse, got home after a late shift, he’d meet her outside and help hunt for parking; if he knew she had a job interview, he’d call and ask if she needed new pantyhose; he’d whisk her daughter into a store and buy her a coat. “Life sucked when Rich wasn’t around,” Stewart says.
Between 2015 and 2018, Blake went to prison on a gun charge. It was his second time inside, after spending his 20s locked up for assault. In the letters he wrote Stewart, he said he wanted to get therapy and do something different with his life. Get a job. Establish credit. “If you feel like you can’t do this anymore, I understand,” he wrote to Stewart. “Because you didn’t sign up for this jail shit!”
Things were good for a while after Blake’s release. He got his OSHA certification, and a friend said he could hire him for a construction job. But before it could happen, the police stopped a car he was riding in — it had a busted mirror — and found a crack pipe. The four other passengers were released, but because Blake was on parole, he ended up in jail. The pandemic was just getting under way, and nobody could get a court appearance. It was nine and a half months before he came home again.
Stewart and Blake had a big dinner that night. Three months later, he was riding in another car the police stopped, this time for supposedly blowing through a stop sign. The car smelled like weed, and a search turned up a knife — another potential parole violation.
Blake and his son.
Photo: Andy Zalkin, Courtesy of Shersharna Stewart
On the morning of March 11, Blake hesitated at the foot of the bed where Stewart lay. He was due to meet his parole officer, and he told her that if she didn’t hear from him later, it would mean he’d been sent to Rikers. “Are we going to be good?” he asked. “Yeah,” she told him, “we’re always good.” Their eyes met. He asked again. This time his voice shook, and tears were coming down. She jumped up to hug him. “How about you give me a ride?” he said.
Blake and Stewart talked every day while he was at Rikers. He would be out by July, he promised — maybe sooner if the state passed the Less Is More Act, which would release prisoners with noncriminal parole violations to help reduce the spread of COVID. He had Stewart print everything she could find about the act and mail it to him.
On April 28, Blake called, frantic. “Calm down,” Stewart said, thinking of his high blood pressure. “Calm down.” Blake said he’d had terrible heartburn earlier and then he must have passed out and hit his head, because he’d woken up in his bunk to find a CO staring down at him. “I’m scared,” he said. Stewart told him to go to the infirmary. For two days, she heard nothing and then a friend whose relative worked at Rikers called to say Blake was dead.
Later, a detainee named Vernal told her what happened and wrote it down in a statement. He had been on his way to make a cup of hot chocolate when he noticed Blake was unconscious. An officer, he said, refused to call for help. “His exact words were ‘It’s too late to call a captain or for a medical emergency. We can handle,’ ” Vernal said. It was 10:45 p.m. Blake stopped breathing, which prompted another officer to attempt CPR. When the medical staff arrived, a full hour later, they had forgotten the oxygen. “I truly believe,” Vernal wrote, “that if this situation was handled with the proper urgency and professionalism it could’ve made a difference in life or death.”
Illustration: Chuy Hartman
Jose Mejia Martinez was 20 when he left the Dominican Republic, where he made a living repairing air-conditioning systems in Santo Domingo, and arrived in the Bronx. It was 2007. His mother, Martha, had emigrated to the U.S. in the 1990s, and it had taken her a long time to secure him residency. He got work at a factory and at Yankee Stadium, and in 2009, he cradled his own baby boy. But he also struggled with his mental health, and he cycled through psychiatric facilities and periods of drug use. In 2019, he went to prison on an assault charge, serving a little more than a year before being paroled into the pandemic winter.
Two cases of beer he allegedly swiped from a CTown supermarket got him arrested again. A crack pipe he was allegedly carrying got him charged with criminal possession of a controlled substance. He was two months into a Rikers stint on June 10 when beads of sweat collected on his nose and he went limp. Inmates alerted the officer on duty. Rather than call for help, the officer told Mejia Martinez’s cellmate to walk him to his bed. An hour later, he was dead. The medical examiner gave the cause as acute methadone intoxication.
On his 34th birthday.
Photo: Courtesy of Martha Martinez
Martha Martinez still doesn’t know exactly what happened to her son. Had he been seen by the jail’s substance-abuse treatment center? Amid the constellation of institutional failures that compose Rikers, the program is a conspicuous success. Detainees can get methadone there, but the treatment can be dangerous if not properly monitored. If Mejia Martinez was given a dose, was it too large? Could he have bought it off someone who had secreted away some of his own dose? Martha has no idea. “It’s shameful,” she says. “I just know that he’s dead and buried.”
Illustration: Chuy Hartman
Inside the check-cashing shop in Far Rockaway where Willie Cobb owned a stand selling hats, T-shirts, gloves, and other items, he’d often get a visit from his nephew. Robert Demitrius Jackson — “Meecho” — would make his way back: thick forearms, a teasing smile, tossing out jokes. He’d help Cobb with the business, or they’d go down to the beach to shoot hoops. Jackson didn’t share much with his uncle, who didn’t pry. “It’s not easy for these men in this world,” Cobb says. “I always would let him know, ‘I’m here for you.’ ” Years ago, he convinced Jackson to come pray at Refuge Church of Christ and be saved. The last time the two men saw each other, they ate chicken and rice and talked about God, quoting scripture they had committed to memory.
In October 2020, Jackson was arrested on burglary charges for stealing packages. In the months he spent at Rikers, the staffing shortage reached a crisis point, and the officers who did show up for work found themselves pulling double and triple shifts. Early on June 30, after more than 20 hours without a break, the officer in Jackson’s unit walked out. Jackson began gasping for air. That evening, another officer noticed he was struggling. The staff called for help three times, but when a medical team arrived, nearly 90 minutes later, Jackson was unresponsive. The medical examiner concluded that heart disease had ended his life.
An image from his funeral pamphlet.
Photo: Courtesy of Willie Cobb
Most people’s idea of incarceration is that the state locks people in to protect those on the outside. Cobb says jailers have an obligation to care for the people inside, too. “You have to depend on these people to make sure that you’re safe,” he says. “Unfortunately, from what I hear, that was not the case. And I think there should be consequences. I really do.”
Illustration: Chuy Hartman
Brandon Rodriguez came into the world loud, loving attention and hating to be left alone. As he grew up, he would serenade his mother, Tamara Carter, with renditions of Mary J. Blige; he would claim with a straight face that it was a mouse that had eaten half of that Louisiana crunch cake.
Brandon lived in that upbeat place much of the time, but he could also bottom out. His elementary school labeled him “emotionally disturbed.” (Later, doctors would call it ADHD and bipolar disorder.) Carter, then in her 20s, struggled to handle his mood swings, getting little help from doctors and counselors. The family moved from the Bronx to the suburbs, looking for quiet and better schools. But Brandon preferred to stay in the Bronx with his aunt and grandmother. He’d visit his great love, a cat named Nana, at the home of his best friend Krystal. If he’d been vagabonding, she’d wash his clothes, then bring him the phone and say, “Call your mom.”
In August 2014, when Rodriguez was 18, he was arrested for reasons that remain under seal. While he was in custody, his health collapsed: His speech slurred, his face drooped, and he dropped 20 pounds in two weeks. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, he never stood quite straight again. That December, he was transferred to Rikers Island. The Justice Department had recently completed an investigation finding that violence in Rikers’s adolescent jail was so pervasive it violated the Constitution. On January 1, 2015, six members of the Patria gang assaulted Rodriguez, stabbing him 18 times.
He left New York in his early 20s, hoping to turn things around. In Indiana, he got a car and a silver pit bull with blue eyes. Next: Pennsylvania. One day in 2021, he called Carter with a catch in his voice, and she convinced him to come home. She cooked him everything he asked for, but he was too sick to keep anything down. Soon he was in the hospital, FaceTiming from his bed with Krystal, who had a baby boy — his “nephew,” he called him.
Photo: Andy Zalkin; Photo courtesy of Tamara Carter
Rodriguez wanted a family of his own. He took up with a woman he met on Facebook, but in August, he was arrested on domestic-violence charges. He landed back at Rikers. A man jumped Rodriguez in the intake pen, fracturing his eye socket and sending him to the hospital. Medical records should have noted his illness, how easily his body could give, but he was returned to the island. He barely slept, a stress that surely caused his MS to flare. One day, Rodriguez was roughed up by the guards after he wouldn’t comply with an instruction. Even though the city had recently banned solitary confinement, officers took Rodriguez to an isolated area of the jail and locked him in a cramped shower cell — unofficial segregation without any rules or regulations. That’s where he wrapped his T-shirt around his neck.
Carter wanted to hold on to the little she had of her son. She tried to get his phone back — she wanted to pay the bill so she could keep texting him even if he couldn’t respond — until she learned the Department of Correction had destroyed his property. Rodriguez’s death is something Carter still can’t square. “If what they’re saying is true, that he took his own life, what did you guys do to him?” she asks. She insists he wasn’t suicidal. Several people familiar with the case agree. Rodriguez didn’t arrive wanting to end his life. Rikers took him there.
Illustration: Chuy Hartman
On September 20, 2020, their 36th anniversary, Segundo Guallpa convinced his wife to come to a friend’s house to play cards. Luz Gualman was tired, but she wanted to keep an eye on her husband’s drinking. She never saw the surprise party coming. “Next year, you’ll see,” Guallpa told her. “Everything will be different.”
They had married in Ecuador when Gualman was 15. He left to find work in the U.S., and she followed years later. After he severed parts of two fingers in a construction accident, her wages at a clothing factory kept them afloat. When their four children got home from school, it was their father who greeted them, the house fragrant from his cooking. But in 2013, Guallpa was assaulted on the street so badly he suffered permanent brain damage. He began to drink, and the amiable man the neighbors called “Panchito” disappeared behind a bitter torrent of words.
By the summer of 2021, they couldn’t make rent, and their landlord threatened eviction. One night, Gualman was in the yard, sorting recyclables to sell and trying to tune out her husband’s ranting about where they were going to live, and then his hands were around her neck. The kids heard her screaming. Gualman left the house in an ambulance. Guallpa left in handcuffs. They never saw each other again.
Gualman and Guallpa.
Photo: Courtesy of Luz Gualman
Guallpa spent 12 days locked up. Around 1:30 a.m. on August 30, an officer found him. Another suspected suicide. He left a message behind, but no one has shared it with Gualman. “I don’t know his last words,” she says.
On their 37th anniversary, Guallpa had been gone three weeks. Gualman thinks about the help she wishes her husband had received for his illnesses, rather than being sent to “that jail they call hell.” She thinks about other women who won’t call for help for fear of their husbands dying at Rikers. And she thinks about that night. “I was a victim of domestic violence,” she says. “My daughter tells me, ‘What if we hadn’t called the police? My father was aggressive. Rather than my father dying, you could have died. What would have happened to us?’ ”
Illustration: Chuy Hartman
In the video, Esias Johnson grooves in a convenience store to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” He spins, lets a shiver run through his body at the line “I wanna feel the heat with somebody.” It was June 2016, and Johnson had just graduated from high school in northeastern Massachusetts. His parents, Tracy and Jerome, threw him a party. In front of friends and family, Jerome dinged a glass to get everyone’s attention. “This is a house of love and acceptance,” he began. His son had come out as gay, he said, and his boyfriend was in attendance. “I wanted him to feel free and able to be himself,” Jerome says.
Sai-Sai, as his parents called him, had been diagnosed over the years with Asperger’s syndrome, autism, and ADHD. He would get manic, then sleep all day; once, he took a car that wasn’t his, flipped it, and got locked up. He was also sweet and desperate to find love. At church, he would offer women foot rubs, and he wrote songs filled with longing. Johnson always said he was going to live in New York one day. His dad had a friend, Old School, who had gotten his start producing music there, and maybe he could get his songs recorded.
Photo: Courtesy of Tracy Johnson
In 2019, when he was 21, Johnson made the move. He stayed with a guy he had once dated, until he got kicked out and began to unravel. He made threats to Marymount College, where the former date had studied, and the campus was evacuated. Over the next few years, Johnson was arrested numerous times for threatening people — mostly men he had met online who’d rejected him, his parents say. He spent a year in Rikers. When he came home for Mother’s Day in 2021, Tracy begged him not to go back to the city. Jerome told him, “You might love New York, but New York doesn’t love you.” Johnson assured them he would be okay. A few months later, he was arrested for chasing a man into a bank with a syringe, threatening to inject him with HIV.
In his final days at Rikers, Johnson slept across from Allen Chey King, who recalls Johnson complaining of stomach pains and of not being able to move his bowels for days. He put in multiple requests to go to the clinic, but no one took him. (So many people were missing their clinic escorts that a state court would soon rule the Department of Correction had failed in its basic duty to provide medical care.) At 4:30 a.m. on September 7, King woke up, saw Johnson clutching his stomach and wincing, and alerted a CO. He checked on him a few hours later; his hands were cold, and his face was gray. The preliminary cause of death was a lethal dose of methadone.
Johnson had been given a prescription for 40 milligrams, but his parents don’t know why. Methadone is normally prescribed to combat opioid withdrawal. Johnson liked to drink, smoke, and take ecstasy on occasion, but nobody who knew him saw him use anything harder. For someone not addicted to opioids, methadone can be lethal.
Before he went to Rikers, Johnson had been in touch with Old School. He was hoping to get into a studio. The last song he was working on had only the beginnings of lyrics: “The world can get so cold, you can forget where ya from / Don’t lose sight / Hold love tight.”
Illustration: Chuy Hartman
Isa Abdul-Karim was always searching for family. When he was 6 or 7 years old, his mother sent him to Senegal to study Islam. His host family never quite accepted him; unparented and often hungry, he would leave the madrassa to run with kids on the street. When he returned to the U.S. in his late teens, Abdul-Karim spoke four languages and had completed his Quranic studies, but he didn’t have a high-school diploma.
He landed with his father’s side of the family, his siblings as taken with their brother from Africa as he was with his American kin. “He was so worldly,” says his sister Najwa Comeau. He crashed with her in New Jersey, sometimes trailing her to her college classes, then moved in with another sister in Brooklyn, hovering at her elbow while she cooked. But after a dispute with a relative, Abdul-Karim became estranged. He got by peddling wallets and purses, then was arrested for selling cocaine to an undercover cop in 2015 and sent to jail to await trial.
Celebrating Eid al-Fitr in 2020.
Photo: Courtesy of Dhuha Abdul-Karim
At Rikers, he alleged in a lawsuit, he was placed in a single cell after complaining about an officer’s harassment. He had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and the isolation exacerbated the voices he heard. One night, Abdul-Karim swallowed a battery and attempted to hang himself. The next day, when a social worker visited, Abdul-Karim was sleeping on the floor of a holding pen in the jail’s clinic. “I tried to hang up to be on the other side, to be with my maker and mother and father,” he said. “I’m innocent of the crime.” For days, he stayed there. No bed. No toilet. “I need to end my life,” he told a counselor. “I just want someone to help me do it.” The battery remained inside him, causing excruciating pain.
He went to prison for the drug charge, was paroled, and moved to New Jersey, closer to a family he had met at a masjid who’d adopted him as their own. On Eid al-Fitr, he led prayers in Arabic and blended virgin piña coladas to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Then, in August 2021, he was the victim of a stabbing. While he was in the hospital, someone ran his name and saw he had a warrant for failing to report to his parole officer. Soon Abdul-Karim was crossing the bridge to Rikers, where he contracted COVID.
On September 17, Governor Kathy Hochul signed the Less Is More Act, ordering nearly 200 people held on technical parole violations for at least 30 days to be released immediately. Abdul-Karim, who used a wheelchair because of a spinal disease, was just short of a month. On his 32nd day at Rikers, he died from a pulmonary embolism linked to COVID. In the Muslim tradition, his body was washed and shrouded. On September 25, at the Beit El-Maqdis Islamic Center in Brooklyn, he was remembered by his friends, his family, and the family he had made.
Illustration: Chuy Hartman
Albert Williams was worried. His son, Stephan Khadu, was at Rikers, and news of the horrific conditions had reached him across the country in Portland, Oregon. “This shit is unbelievable,” he told Khadu when they spoke next by phone. “If I was in jail, I’d be scared.” His son guffawed. “I’m not in jail,” he said, “I’m in Miami!” Williams had to laugh — his son always batted worry away. Khadu used the same line to reassure his mother, Lezandre. “Okay, son,” she said, “I’ll come and see you in Miami.”
Lezandre was 14 when she had Stephan, the first baby of the group. They called him Pop, and he taught all her friends how to raise kids. He had dreams and grew up in a neighborhood where the place to exercise ambition was the streets. He hung around with older kids on the edge of gangs. When he was 16, Lezandre wrote him a note in purple pen: “You are truly hurting me. I try my best, but my best was not enough.”
In December 2019, Khadu was arrested in a gang-conspiracy case — one in a series that district attorneys have brought recently, which some argue hoover up too many on too little evidence. That night, Lezandre walked down a courtroom hallway, passing room after room of faces she knew: boys whom she had watched grow mustaches, who slept on her couch, whom she fed. When she found her son, he looked her in the eye and said, “I’m okay.”
Khadu with his daughter in 2019.
Photo: Courtesy of Lezandre Khadu
The state said Khadu was part of the Brick Squad gang — one of ten people named in a 48-count indictment for conspiracy to commit murder and sell drugs. Khadu awaited trial at Rikers into 2021. As COVID spread, he saw that life was getting harder for everyone. “Them officers are people too,” Khadu told his mother. “They might work four tours. They might not get lunch. They might not even use the bathroom.”
That spring, he was transferred to “the Boat” — a floating jail docked nearby called the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center. Khadu had what appeared to be a seizure there. His friends found him dazed and bloody from biting his tongue. When they tried to get help, there was some other commotion in the unit, and officers blasted it with pepper spray. Khadu ended up on a gurney at Lincoln Hospital, limp, one sock dark with dirt as if he’d been dragged.
Khadu returned to jail a few days later. He played basketball in the rec yard on the Boat’s top level, and he told his family he was getting better. By his 24th birthday, on September 11, it seemed like Pop was back. On a video call, Lezandre was delighted to see he’d gotten a haircut. “You look like somebody loves you again,” she said.
On September 21, Khadu told his girlfriend he wasn’t feeling well. She pushed him to put in a sick call. “They always think we’re joking, so they never take us,” he said. He had his final seizure the next morning. Two people say he was alive when officers called for help. It took an hour and 41 minutes for the medical team to arrive, navigate the broken elevator, and transport Khadu to the hospital. At 10:55 a.m., he was pronounced dead. The medical examiner would eventually find Khadu died from lymphocytic meningitis, which, properly treated, is rarely fatal. “He had so many medical problems,” a man incarcerated on the barge told a legal-aid group. “He should’ve never been here.”
A condolence card that Stephan Khadu’s fellow detainees sent to his mother.
Photo: Andy Zalkin; Card courtesy of Lezandre Khadu
Illustration: Chuy Hartman
Victor Mercado and Ray Rivera had different parents, but ever since they were locked up together in the 1980s, they’d been brothers. To Ray’s mother, Mercado was the son who would peel the green bananas for pasteles at Christmas and give her Yorkies haircuts. Whenever he returned from a periodic stint upstate — usually on a small-time drug charge — he would end up at her apartment on Brook Avenue in Mott Haven. It seemed like everyone on the block knew him: The abuelitas would lean out the window and ask him to carry their things down; the old men would ask him to come up and cook them a meal.
With his girlfriend, Tammy Echevarria, Mercado would turn on the Temptations, crooning and spinning her around her plant-filled apartment. With his best friend, Rivera, Mercado would head to Gonzalez y Gonzalez in the Village. Even in his 60s, weathered by the streets and the drugs he sometimes used, he could match the salseros there move for move. Rivera always wanted Mercado to get his paperwork together for travel so he could show him the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, where the Mercados had come from. But he never did.
Mercado, right, and Rivera in New York.
Photo: Andy Zalkin; Photo courtesy of Ray Rivera
One day in July, the police surrounded a car off Brook Avenue. Mercado puttered up on his scooter. The officers started hassling him, found the car key on his person and a gun in the car, and arrested him. The judge set his bail at $100,000. Two weeks later, Mercado appeared in court for a hearing. Echevarria winced when she saw him. He was in a wheelchair, in need of a haircut and a shave, with a look in his eyes that seemed to say Help me. James Kilduff, Mercado’s lawyer, had fought to have the hearing in person, the better to argue that Mercado was infirm and the bail too high. The court issued its ruling: denied.
Mercado tested positive for COVID two weeks later. On October 10, he called Rivera to say he didn’t think he was going to make it. Four days later, he was at Elmhurst Hospital. Kilduff and a prosecutor got into a virtual courtroom, where this time he persuaded the judge to have mercy. Before Kilduff could tell Mercado’s friends and family that they would be able to see him, Rivera called. Mercado was dead.
Echevarria and Rivera are still waiting for his ashes. She will keep some. “I want him with me,” she says. Rivera has his own plan. He’s going to carry Mercado onto the plane he never boarded, over the Atlantic he never crossed, to Puerto Rico, the home he never had a chance to see. He’ll take the ashes to the edge of the island and let his brother fly.
Illustration: Chuy Hartman
Malcolm Boatwright never forgot a phone number. “Even though he’d get a new number every other month, he’d still memorize yours,” says his brother Marquis Frazier. If you didn’t pick up, he’d come knocking. As soon as he knew you were okay, Boatwright would be pounding the pavement to check on his mother, aunt, and eight siblings. The family called him the Gentle Giant: He was heavyset, and his mother says he was autistic, with the mind of an 11-year-old. Boatwright would watch Tyler Perry movies on repeat until his sister Precious begged for a break. He’d turn, cheese real big, and tell her, “Girl, I love Madea.”
When Boatwright was in his late teens, prosecutors said, he placed his mouth on a boy’s genitals. He was sentenced to ten years probation and six months behind bars, to be served at Rikers. While there, his family says, he was raped. After Boatwright got out, he was accused of going near a playground where the child was. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, but before he was sentenced he tried to kill himself, and he was placed in a mental-health facility. He would join his family for church on Sundays, wearing a sky-blue shirt and tie, and grab dinner before returning to the facility by curfew.
Photo: Courtesy of Marquis Frazier
In November, Boatwright was accused of touching another boy’s “intimate parts,” according to a report, a crime he insisted he did not commit. He was terrified of going back to Rikers. At the arraignment, his attorney, Calvin Saunders, asked for a psychiatric exam to assess Boatwright’s fitness to stand trial. Boatwright went to Rikers in the meantime. During his month on the island, he told his family that the other men wouldn’t let him shower, threw feces at him, and stole his things. “We heard nothing but fear in his voice,” says Precious. One Monday, he said he’d hit his head, though his mother suspected someone had hit him. Then Boatwright called and said he’d had a seizure. Like Stephan Khadu, he had no history of them. The last time Boatwright spoke to his family, he called from Bellevue Hospital. He was headed back to the island and promised he would call again. He never did.
On December 13, an officer at the Brooklyn Criminal Court called Boatwright’s name off the docket. Saunders informed the court that his client had died. “I’m sorry to hear about the passing,” said the judge, seeming to mean it. “That is all.”
We’ll update this article with details on his life soon.
If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 for free, anonymous support and resources.
Want more stories like this one? Subscribe now to support our journalism and get unlimited access to our coverage. If you prefer to read in print, you can also find this article in the January 3, 2021, issue of New York Magazine.