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NYC settles Rikers Island wrongful death suit for $2.6M

The suit accuses a CO of failing to tour the unit and leaving his post unstaffed the night an inmate died of a heart attack; after the CO departed, there was no floor officer in the housing unit for the next 15 hours

Rikers Island

FILE- This aerial photo shows Rikers Island, New York’s biggest lockup, June 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Seth Wenig/AP

By Graham Rayman
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — New York City has agreed to pay $2.6 million to settle a lawsuit over the death of a suspect being held on Rikers Island that exposed serious breakdowns by both correction and medical staff, court papers show.

Word of the settlement comes on the same day the correction officers union filed a brief in federal court opposing an outside takeover of the jails.

Robert Jackson died at age 42 of a heart attack in the Anna M. Kross Center on June 30, 2021 after officers and medical staff allegedly failed to respond properly as he went into medical distress, said Jackson family lawyer Joshua Kelner.

“It’s an incredibly disturbing sequence,” said Kelner. “And it’s part of a long litany of cases where a death occurred that was preventable. The family is glad to have closure with the settlement but nothing can compensate them for their loss. It’s a tragedy that never should have happened.”

The suit accuses Correction Officer Samson Fadipe of failing to tour the unit and leaving his post unstaffed. After he departed, there was no floor officer in the housing unit for the next 15 hours, a Correction Department investigative report said.

Correction Officer Troy Smith then took the post but spent the first hour of his tour in the day room watching local news on television, reading the paper and chatting as Jackson’s condition may have spiraled, according to Kelner and the Investigations Division report.

When Smith found Jackson, the detainee appeared unwell, the report said. After 8 p.m. Smith called the clinic for a medical response but none came.

He called again at 8:30 p.m. as Jackson’s condition worsened, the report said. Jackson became unresponsive about 9 p.m. and Smith called a third time for medical help before beginning chest compressions himself.

Medical finally reached Jackson’s side at 9:23 p.m. but by then he didn’t have a pulse, the report said. A doctor declared him dead at 9:55 p.m.

The investigative report said medical staff didn’t even begin assembling to respond until 9:20 p.m.

Had the medical response been timely, with a defibrillator, Jackson likely could have been saved, Kelner says. The city Medical Examiner determined he died of heart disease, the report said.

Fadipe was found to have stayed in the unit’s command post when he claimed he was conducting tours, the Correction Department investigative report said. He was suspended 28 days and charges for leaving his post and falsifying a log book were recommended but the report concluded staff actions “did not contribute” to Jackson’s death.

Smith was not disciplined.

In a separate report, the state Commission on Correction directed city Correctional Health Services, which operates medical care in the jails, to do a “comprehensive review” of its emergency response procedures. In that report, CHS insisted the first emergency call its staff received was at 9:08, rather than 8 p.m., as the Correction Department report found.

No one from CHS has been disciplined to date, Kelner said.

The city Law Department declined to comment. CHS did not reply to a request for comment.

The News previously reported that just two CHS staffers have been disciplined in a single death between January 2021 and Dec. 25, 2023.

Jackson left behind his mother, Gladys Jackson, and four brothers and sisters.

“I’m heartbroken by what happened to my son,” his mom said. “Robert was not an ordinary person. He was an amazing human being and brought a lot of people to God and we miss him every day.”

An unusual element of the settlement requires Fadipe, the officer accused of misconduct by the Correction Department, to pay $500, the court papers show.

Jackson was one of 16 people to die in the jails in 2021, followed by 19 in 2022 and nine in 2023. There have been three more deaths so far in 2024.

The 44 deaths in jail from 2021 through 2023 are a 109% increase compared to the 2018, 2019 and 2020 total of 21 jail deaths, city statistics show.

The settlement is yet another in a string of such payouts stemming from the surge in jail deaths over the past three years. Kelner alone has settled five wrongful death cases resulting in about $12 million in payouts from the city, he said.

“In addition to the human toll from the systemic breakdown at Rikers, there is a tremendous financial cost to the city’s taxpayers,” Kelner said. “At this point nothing short of a receiver has a chance of bringing about real change at Rikers.”

The Correction Officers Benevolent Association filed its brief Wednesday in Nunez v. City of New York , the landmark 2011 class action lawsuit that led in 2015 to Justice Department consent decree and the creation of a federal monitor to track violence and uses of force in New York City jails.

In November, the Legal Aid Society and the Justice Department filed motions in favor of the appointment of an outside receiver to be granted powers to run the jail system. They argued the situation won’t improve if left in the city’s control.

On March 19, the city filed its response, arguing New Yorkers are best served by the status quo.

COBA, in its new brief opposing receivership, says the jail population is now “more violent” with a higher percentage of people with serious mental illnesses. Meanwhile, the total number of officers dropped from 2020 to 2024 by 35% or 8,900 officers to 5,700, the COBA brief said.

As The News previously reported, a wave of retirements between now and 2026 is looming, with 1,050 officers, who make up 20% of the workforce, hitting their 20th year of service.

“This perfect storm obscures some of the meaningful and positive progress that DOC, COBA, and COBA members have collectively achieved since 2022,” the new union brief states.

“[A receiver] will lead to chaos. It will be the tipping point that erases all recent hard-earned progress, permanently exacerbates the staffing crisis, and destroys morale.”

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