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Rikers Island detainees locked in cells as sprinkler system failed in blaze, NYC Correction Board says

One detainee was severely burned and several others suffered smoke inhalation in the April 6 fire, which the report confirmed was sparked by a detainee angry over losing personal possessions during a search

NYC Rikers Fire

FDNY fire trucks head to Rikers Island on April 6, 2023, in Queens, New York. (Barry Williams/New York Daily News/TNS)

Barry Williams/New York Daily News/TNS

By Graham Rayman
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — A string of missteps that included leaving detainees locked in their cells as a smoky fire raged around them were outlined in a city Board of Correction report released Friday about a near-deadly blaze in a Rikers Island jail.

One detainee was severely burned and several others suffered serious smoke inhalation in the April 6 fire, which the Board of Correction report confirmed was sparked by a detainee angry over losing his shoes and some other personal possessions during a search by Correction Department Emergency Service officers.

The Board of Correction’s findings confirm much of what the Daily News has reported about the blaze that erupted in an involuntary protective custody unit at Rikers Island’s North Infirmary Command. Among the report’s key points:

  • Detainees were locked in their cells for more than 25 minutes as the fire generated smoke so thick they couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of them.
  • For at least two hours before the fire, correction officers failed to make required tours of the North Infirmary Command.
  • Jail staff shut down the sprinkler system in the unit between April 1 and April 6 and didn’t turn it back on. The Correction Department still cannot say exactly when or for how long the water was shut off.
  • Legally required fire safety audits were not conducted in the unit between April 1, 2022 and April 30, 2023.
  • The Correction Department’s Fire Safety Unit is “notably understaffed,” the report said.

Among the board’s recommendations was a call for a complete audit of sprinkler systems throughout the city’s jails.

“The report describes layers upon layers of avoidable failures,” the Legal Aid Society said in a statement. “It is hard to imagine any institution in our city where such compounding and colossal failures … would not result in immediate accountability.”

The Correction Department did not immediately respond to an email inquiring whether any staff had been disciplined following the fire.

An acting warden in the jail told the Board of Correction that correction officers no longer leave people in custody in cells without working sprinklers, the report said.

Former Correction Commissioner Louis Molina — who is now an assistant deputy mayor — declined to answer questions about the report at a news briefing Friday.

Investigators say detainee Marvens Thomas, 30, started the fire in his cell using batteries, headphone wires and a remote control, the report said. He added tissues and clothing to the fuel blaze.

Thomas’ motive was his anger over a search by Emergency Services officers in which they confiscated possessions including his shoes, the report said.

The fire came on a day when detainees hoped to get a visit from a group of elected officials touring the jails. But correction officials ordered two searches right during the period of the visit, infuriating the isolated detainees, The News previously reported.

Advocates used the release of the report to call on Mayor Eric Adams to sign a bill passed by the City Council to bar solitary confinement.

“This new report gave me a traumatic flashback,” said activist Anisah Sabur of the HALTsolitary Campaign, recalling his stint in solitary confinement. “People locked in solitary have no way to protect themselves or save themselves or each other when an emergency like a fire takes place. … Mayor Adams must sign (the bill) into law.”

Adams has threatened to veto the bill if it passes.


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