Statistics show that NYC jail deaths at highest rate since 2000

"This is a humanitarian crisis and the state has an obligation to act," a state senator said

By Graham Rayman
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — Even as the population of New York City jails declined over the past half decade, the death rate among detainees surged, according to fatality statistics provided to the Daily News.

Death rates at Rikers Island and other lockups in 2021 and 2022 were higher than in any year since 2000, according to city Board of Correction data obtained via a freedom of information request by the Jails Action Coalition, an advocacy group.

Rikers Island, home to the main jail complex, is situated in the East River between the Queens and Bronx boroughs.
Rikers Island, home to the main jail complex, is situated in the East River between the Queens and Bronx boroughs. (Photo/Spencer Platt of Getty Images via TNS)

“We need to be crystal clear about what’s happening here. This is a humanitarian crisis, and the state has an obligation to act,” said state Sen. Julia Salazar, D-Brooklyn.

“We as a state need to be laser-focused on the safety of all New Yorkers, and cycling people through these institutions of trauma and despair only makes the problem worse for everybody.”

During 2021, a year when jails managed by the city Correction Department averaged 5,468 detainees per day, 14 detainees died — a rate of 2.56 deaths per 1,000 detainees.

Seventeen detainees died in 2022, a year when an average 5,562 people were held in jails per day. That works out to a death rate of 3.06 per 1,000 detainees.

The next closest year by death rate was 2001, when 36 inmates died in a year when the jails’ average daily population was 14,192. That works out to a rate of 2.54 deaths per 1,000 detainees.

The data obtained by the Jails Action Coalition does not include some inmates who died in Correction Department custody while in hospitals or at locations other than jails.

Data about death rates in other U.S. prisons and lockups is difficult to find. But the death rate in jails nationally from 2000 to 2019 was 1.42 per 1,000, a federal Bureau of Justice Statistics study found.

Over the 19 years covered by the federal study, the death rate in New York City jails was slightly higher than the national average — 1.59 per 1,000. The federal study does not cover the pandemic years 2020, 2021 and 2022.

Rikers Island and other city lockups saw far lower death rates before the COVID-19 pandemic.

[RELATED: Federal takeover sought as Rikers death toll mounts]

In 2019, just three people died, all of natural causes, in an average daily city jail population of 7,356 — a death rate of 0.41 per 1,000 detainees.

In all, 445 detainees died in the jails from 2000 through 2022, the Board of Correction records show.

The vast majority died of natural or medical causes, including instances where medical care or emergency response was botched. There were also 53 suicides, 14 murders and 30 accidental deaths — most of those being overdoses, the records show.

The overwhelming number of people who died — 393, or 88% — were listed as either Black or Hispanic, the records show. Forty-eight people listed as white and four people listed as Asian also died in the 23-year period.

Blacks and Hispanics make up 51% of the city’s population, the U.S. census says. Whites make up 40% of the city population but account for 11% of the jail deaths.

Advocates with the Jails Action Coalition said the sheer number of deaths and the increasing rates of death provide strong ammunition against Gov. Kathy Hochul’s plan to once again change the bail reform law.

Focusing on the bump in crime, Hochul has proposed to remove language from the bail law requiring judges to consider the “least restrictive” method of ensuring people return for their court hearings in criminal cases.

Hochul’s plan, part of her state budget proposal, would also let judges weigh a defendant’s “activities and history,” past criminal convictions, past use or possession of a firearm as well as whether the charges include allegation of causing serious harm. She’d also allow judges to consider defendants’ financial circumstances when setting bail.

The result of her proposal, advocates say, will be to drive up the jail population, as they believe it will leave judges with no guidance on setting bail.

“I’m just speechless: 445 people are dead and counting, and the governor seriously wants to take us backwards,” said Melania Brown, the sister of Layleen Polanco, who died of an untreated seizure in solitary confinement in 2019.

“How could we seriously be having a conversation about undoing the most basic protections in the law that have been around for decades?”

NEXT: NYC's Rikers more violent than jails, prisons elsewhere in US, Correction Department testifies


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