Why Does Rikers Island Still Lock People in Shower Stalls?

So-called “de-escalation units” were supposed to help people cool off after violent encounters. But months after their implementation, Rikers staff still use the old brutal methods.

Chris Gelardi   ·   March 22, 2023
Security footage shows fights breaking out at an overcrowded intake holding area at Rikers Island’s Eric M. Taylor Center on June 16, 2022. | New York City Board of Correction

IN AUGUST, two inspectors touring the men’s new admissions facility at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex encountered a man pleading for help. He needed psychiatric medication, he said, and he’d been waiting for hours.

The man took a wet T-shirt, tied it to the top of a door, and, in front of the inspectors, began to hang himself.

The inspectors alerted an officer, who cut him down. (An assistant deputy warden later reported the incident as an “assault on staff,” as the man supposedly splashed the officer with the wet shirt.) The man survived, but not every incarcerated person in distress does: In the five weeks that followed, two men would die after hanging themselves with bed linens at the Eric M. Taylor Center, or EMTC, as the intake facility is known.

The near-hanging took place in EMTC’s “de-escalation unit,” a new type of Rikers module where officers send incarcerated people who’ve just been involved in a violent incident, including a “use of force” by staff. Previously, Rikers had been sending those people back to notoriously chaotic intake pens or to small caged shower stalls, which often resulted in further violence or self-harm. The new units are supposed to offer the calm and stability prerequisite for “de-escalation.”

Documents obtained by New York Focus via a public records request suggest that the new units have fallen short as a solution, and that they are plagued by much of the same chaos as their makeshift counterparts. The documents, along with federal court filings, also show that the city Department of Correction has been slow to use de-escalation cells, still relying on intake pens and caged showers. And they reveal further evidence of brutal conditions in the shower stalls, known as “decontamination units,” where people confined for hours have repeatedly been found screaming, injured, and wheeled out on stretchers.

The records surface as the DOC is preparing for a contentious City Council hearing this week, during which councilmembers — including Speaker Adrienne Adams, who is stepping in to chair the event — are expected to drill officials over allegedly slow-walking a plan to close Rikers.

The hearing comes shortly after the department escaped a potential contempt of court ruling in a nearly 12-year federal case over conditions on Rikers Island. The judge demanded basic reform measures to monitor Rikers intake in 2021, but the DOC still doesn’t have reliable systems to track how long people spend in intake pens, which have no beds and frequently lack working bathrooms. Excusing the department from contempt, the judge argued that Rikers has too many problems to apply “granular focus” to any one issue.

“It’s not like the wool is being successfully pulled over these [officials’] eyes,” said Sarena Townsend, a former DOC internal investigator. “They themselves know they’re being duped. They themselves have seen the evidence.”

In response to requests for comment, the DOC asked for copies of documents New York Focus obtained — then ignored repeated follow-ups.

Security camera footage shows Kevin Bryan sleeping on the floor of a crowded pen at the Eric M. Taylor Center’s intake area, where he was kept for 23 hours on September 8, 2022. A week later, he hanged himself in the jail. | New York City Board of Correction

EMTC’S DE-ESCALATION unit was in chaos on the August morning that officials from the New York City Board of Correction, a jail oversight agency, visited.

When they arrived, the floor was flooded, according to a memo obtained by New York Focus. And while all Rikers units are supposed to have at least two officers overseeing them — one in the control room and one on the floor — no one was staffing the floor post.

The man who tried to hang himself had two unit mates. One was asleep, and the other reported that he had recently “self-injured” after spending nearly nine hours in another type of de-escalation area: the small, caged “decontamination” shower in intake. Decontamination units are meant to quickly allow people to rinse off after getting pepper sprayed, per official policy. But the jail agency uses them to stash people after other violent incidents.

In September, photos uncovered by Gothamist showed a man having to be removed from EMTC intake’s decontamination cage on a gurney “due to self harm” after officers stashed him there for nearly 24 hours. DOC policy dictates that no one should be held in de-escalation confinement for more than six hours without “reauthorization.”

In June, Elijah Muhammad attempted to strangle himself in the EMTC decontamination cage, where officers had sent him even though he hadn’t been pepper sprayed, according to documents obtained by NBC New York. Just weeks after that suicide attempt, Rikers staff held Muhammad in a different de-escalation unit for 32 hours. Days later, he became the 10th of 19 people to die in DOC custody last year.

And less than a year before Muhammad, Brandon Rodriguez hanged himself in a decontamination unit at Rikers Island’s former new admissions facility.

The “decontamination unit” and flooded floor of the de-escalation unit at Rikers Island’s Eric M. Taylor Center. | New York City Board of Correction

The Board of Correction has tried to convince the DOC to shutter the cages. In September, the board’s recently resigned executive director, Amanda Masters, emailed DOC Commissioner Louis Molina with photos of a decontamination cage, per the documents obtained by New York Focus. “We have seen a person with severe injuries from banging his body parts (hands and head) on the grating while locked in,” she wrote.

She was possibly referring to the man who said he was locked in the cage for nearly nine hours in August. He complained about a lack of medical attention and water in the decontamination unit, which the board memo described as “sweltering.”

EMTC officers kept another man in the shower cage for more than 11 hours after pepper spraying him in June, according to board emails. While in the shower, “he was serious[ly] injured by others or himself,” an official found. He, too, had to be removed on a gurney. And when board staff went to re-inspect the cage, they encountered a man “screaming” because he had been locked in the shower stall with feces and blood.

“The Board is very interested in seeing [the cage] dismantled,” Masters wrote to Molina.

Molina wasn’t having it. A day later, the DOC’s general counsel responded in the commissioner’s place: “Amanda: same response as before. The Commissioner continues to believe that the [decontamination] unit is necessary but has to be properly monitored.”

IT’S UNCLEAR WHY the DOC believes using the caged showers continues to be necessary.

Publicly, Molina has described the cages as a “secure and safe place” to send people after a violent incident. But that’s why the department created the de-escalation units, with their proper cells. When the first three opened, a federal official noted that their in-unit clinics, designated search areas, and individual cells made for an “ideal” setup — if they’re used correctly.

Each of Rikers Island’s eight active facilities opened a de-escalation unit between January and July of last year, but they have been slow to use them. According to a court-appointed federal monitor, in May and July, Rikers staff sent only about seven percent of people to de-escalation units after violent incidents, funneling half to recover or cool off in intake. Between July and December, they were still sending three in 10 to intake; it’s unclear how many were being sent to de-escalation units.

The intake pens, especially those for new admissions, are among the most squalid areas of Rikers. Shortly after the 2021 court order requiring the DOC to improve its intake process, the New York Post published photos of people held for days or weeks in packed new admissions intake pens, forced to sleep on dirty floors and relieve themselves in plastic bags. Despite court intervention and the DOC moving new admissions to a new facility, new photos the following year revealed that conditions had barely improved.

Even when the jails send people to the de-escalation units, the Board of Correction documents suggest that they’re still making stops in the chaotic alternatives. Both the man who tried to hang himself in August and the other waking resident of the EMTC de-escalation unit reported having spent hours in the decontamination shower.

“It’s just moving them around from one dangerous location to another dangerous location,” said Townsend.

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
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