‘No B Officer’: How an Understaffed Rikers Island Allowed Another Suicide

New documents obtained by New York Focus offer a glimpse into the last hours of Kevin Bryan’s life. His was one of several recent deaths at Rikers in dorms with unstaffed posts.

Chris Gelardi   ·   December 22, 2022
Rikers Island docks | Reivax

KEVIN BRYAN WAS distressed throughout his last six days of life on Rikers Island. His pens at the Eric M. Taylor Center’s intake area were so crowded that he slept on the floor, using his shoe as a pillow. He languished there for 23 hours, until he was sent to a new arrivals dorm, where he paced around, antsy that he was unable to leave. For his release, a judge had required $5,000 bail — or a smaller deposit on a larger bond — but his family couldn’t afford to pay either. One of his dormmates said he was frequently bullied and “looking for a group to connect with.”

September 14 was supposed to be Bryan’s seventh day. Early that morning, men in the jail became annoyed with him and tried to kick him out of the housing area. There was no officer patrolling the floor. So the sole guard present — assigned to a control room that operates the dorm doors — let Bryan drag his bedding into a vestibule just outside. Around 5:25 am, he lay down on the floor across from a staff bathroom.

Forty-five minutes later, Bryan, 35, locked himself in that bathroom and hanged himself with his bed sheet. His was the 14th of 19 deaths in Rikers custody so far this year.

New documents obtained by New York Focus via a public records request offer minute-by-minute details about Bryan’s chaotic final days at Rikers, where dysfunction has driven rampant violence, drug overdoses, and suicides. Nearly 60 people have died at the facility in the last six years. With attempted reforms still failing, a court is threatening to hand administration of the notorious complex over to the federal government.

One of Bryans intake pens. │ Board of Correction

The documents illustrate how the same staffing issues that have contributed to other recent Rikers deaths gave Bryan the window he needed to take his own life.

At minimum, Rikers housing areas are supposed to have an officer in the control room, known as the “A-post,” and an officer stationed on the floor to directly watch over residents, or “B-post.” But that’s often not the case. Bryan’s dorm hadn’t had a B-post officer working in at least 30 hours, the records show, forcing the A-post guard to make do when roughly half a dozen of his dormmates moved to expel him.

Two days before Bryan’s death, the city Board of Correction — an independent jail oversight agency — published a report outlining in part how a lack of B-post staffing contributed to two suicides in 2021. Other board reports have pointed to B-post absences as enabling at least two other Rikers deaths this year; one report called the B-post “the first line of response when emergencies occur.”

When Bryan died, his housing area hadnt had a floor officer on duty in at least 30 hours.

A death just a month before Bryan’s took place under remarkably similar circumstances. Like Bryan, 68-year-old Ricardo Cruciani was housed in a dorm-style general population area at the Eric M. Taylor Center. After peeking into the A-post station early one morning, Cruciani took bedding into a shower stall and hanged himself. There had been no B-post officer on duty for more than a day.

According to experts, direct, in-dorm supervision is especially important in new arrivals areas like the Taylor Center’s, as some four in 10 jail suicides in the United States — the leading cause of death for jailed people — take place within the first seven days of detention.

In the wake of Bryan’s suicide, the corrections officers union blamed city administration for staffing troubles, arguing that the City Council needs to allocate resources to hire more officers amid high retirement rates. But the New York City Department of Correction, which runs Rikers, is already the most richly staffed jail agency in the country. For five years, it has had more uniformed officers than people they incarcerate.

Yet thousands of those officers rarely show up for work. Nearly three years of widespread officer absenteeism — enabled by mass sickouts and lax disciplinary policies — have led to routinely unstaffed posts, fueling violence and medical neglect. Some officers have expressed a reluctance to work amid high rates of violence, suggesting a feedback loop between staff absences and deteriorating conditions.

At the beginning of 2022, 42 percent of uniformed city corrections officers were either out sick (excluding those quarantining for Covid-19 exposure), on leave, on medically restricted duty that precluded them from interacting with incarcerated people, or AWOL, according to data obtained by New York Focus. Zero had tested positive for Covid.

During the month that Bryan died, one in five officers were either out sick or on medically restricted duty.

The Department of Correction did not respond to requests for comment.

KEVIN BRYAN HAD been to Rikers twice before, in 2007 and 2019, but hadn’t stayed more than two days each time. This time, he faced burglary charges, and he didn’t know how long he’d be in jail. His family’s attorney, Michael Aviles, told New York Focus that Bryan was accused of trespassing in an abandoned building.

“They should’ve just released him,” Aviles said.

Bryan was likely in agony on Rikers: He told a court officer that he was suffering from heroin withdrawal — the result of a drug dependency he developed during the pandemic, according to Aviles. Five days into his incarceration, on Monday, September 12, jail staff transferred Bryan back to intake because he was being “disruptive.” Intake sent him back a few hours later.

The next afternoon, when Officer Kelee Grant took over the A-post at Bryan’s housing area, the departing officer wrote in the control room’s log book that the dorm “still doesn’t have a ‘B’ officer on post.” Almost 12 hours later, Bryan was smoking in his dorm’s sitting area, and Grant wrote that she reminded a captain who had visited the housing area that there was “no B officer” on duty. The captain walked through the unit and left. Bryan finished smoking and went to bed.

Two hours later, around 5:20 in the morning, Bryan woke up and tried to go back into the sitting area. But one of his dormmates began yelling at him, according to a Board of Correction narrative of surveillance video, and smacked Bryan on the back of his head. Another handed him his bedding and pushed him toward the housing area door. Soon, around half a dozen people cornered him, snapshots from the video feed show, so Bryan pounded at the door’s glass.

He lay in the vestibule for nearly 45 minutes, during which time Grant checked on him twice, before he took his bedding into the bathroom. He spent almost 25 minutes there before Grant entered the picture again. Grant later told a supervisor that she was trying to get Bryan transferred to another housing area, but her post’s log book doesn’t mention Bryan until after he was in the bathroom. Reports from a captain and assistant deputy warden show that they first heard about Bryan when he locked himself in.

“Visual supervision tour of area — nothing unusual to report,” Grant wrote twice during those 70 minutes.

The staff bathroom couldn’t lock or unlock from the outside, according to the documents, so Grant began to knock on the door. A few minutes later, a captain showed up, and shortly after that, Assistant Deputy Warden Onyemekara Agunwa arrived and began ordering Bryan — who had been in the bathroom for 40 minutes — to unlock the door.

The bathroom where Bryan died, with bedding on the floor. │ Board of Correction

“Bryan was still in the bathroom, refusing to come out as directed,” Agunwa later wrote in a report. Officers finally kicked the bathroom door open nearly an hour after he went in. One officer began chest compressions, but it was too late.

One of Bryan’s dormmates later told an investigator that he called one of Bryan’s relatives as soon as officers found his body. “He told her Bryan was dead,” the investigator wrote.

The Department of Correction sent a chaplain and officer to his family’s house the same morning. Bryan’s mother was in the hospital, Aviles told New York Focus, and only a friend was home. The chaplain left a number, and a family member called back soon after. According to the chaplain’s report, they already “knew about [his] passing.”

“Rikers Island is really turning into a death sentence,” said Aviles.

“People view someone like Kevin and say, ‘Well, he’s a criminal,’” he said. “No, he’s not — he can be anybody.”

Chris Gelardi is a reporter for New York Focus investigating the state’s criminal-legal system. His work has appeared in more than a dozen other outlets, most frequently The Nation, The Intercept, and The Appeal. He is a past recipient of awards from Columbia… more
Also filed in Criminal Justice

Advocates charge that New York’s restrictions for sex offense registrants are “vague, expansive, and unnecessary.” On Tuesday, they filed a federal lawsuit to strike them down.

The Senate will consider Daniel Martuscello III’s bid to run New York’s prison and parole agency. His supporters point to his decades of experience. His opponents say that’s the problem.

After New York’s top court overturned Harvey Weinstein’s conviction, state lawmakers want to let prosecutors bring evidence from past uncharged sexual assaults.

Also filed in New York City

The police department’s PR team has more than doubled in size in the past two years. Some of its recent hires have histories of dishonesty and misconduct.

The journalists said the arrests interfered with their ability to document the police raid at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

New York Focus was on the scene as cops shoved, kettled, and chased students at City College, the second campus where the NYPD razed a Gaza solidarity encampment Tuesday.