Report: Rikers Island correction officer abandoned post for more than two hours before inmate died
The report states there was also no captain on duty as a result of a staffing issue that left the Vierno Center eight captains short on the day the inmate died
By Graham Rayman
New York Daily News
NEW YORK — A correction officer abandoned their post in a Rikers Island jail for more than two hours in apparent violation of Correction Department rules before discovering an unresponsive inmate who later died, says a city government report obtained by the Daily News.
In the hours before detainee Curtis Davis was found in grave condition at the George R. Vierno Center early on July 23, the unnamed officer left their post between 2:07 a.m. and 4:22 a.m. — a span of two hours and 15 minutes, says the Board of Correction report.
Under Correction Department policy, floor officers are supposed to remain on post and tour their units at least once every 30 minutes.
In the aftermath, the Board of Correction report suggests that a log book was falsified to make it appear the officer was on post, when security video demonstrated the officer was not.
Moreover, there was no captain on duty in those hours as a result of a staffing issue that left the Vierno Center eight captains short on the day that Davis died.
Also, the report says, detainees were out of their cells at the 9 p.m. curfew until well after midnight, and the windows of some cells, including Davis’ cell, were covered.
Staff is supposed to enforce the 9 p.m. lock-in and prevent the covering of windows, according to Correction Department security policy.
Officers did not act to remove the coverings until after Davis, 44, was dead, the board report said.
The city Medical Examiner said Friday that Davis died by suicide. Detainees told the Board of Correction that he hung himself by tying a “ligature” to a vent, the report said.
An assistant deputy warden and two correction officers were suspended, sources said.
”This is another death attributable to the fact that DOC leaders have abandoned one of the core functions of jail management and do not ensure their staff stay on post doing their jobs,” said Mary Lynne Werlwas, director of the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project.
In the timeline of the Davis case, the board report states that after their two-hour, 15-minute absence ended, the floor officer reappeared in the unit at 4:22 a.m. and toured the area without noticing anything unusual.
The officer toured again at 5:04 a.m., noticed something was wrong in Davis’ cell, and opened it, finding Davis on the floor unresponsive.
The officer began chest compressions a minute later. A medical team arrived at 5:13 a.m., followed by city medics at 5:29 a.m.
Davis was declared dead at the scene at 5:51 a.m. His body was covered with a white sheet at 5:54 a.m., the report said.
Window coverings were removed from Davis’ cell at 6:32 a.m., and Davis’ body was taken out by city coroners at 11:28 a.m.
Correction Department spokeswoman Annais Morales said an investigation is ongoing.
The Correction Officers Benevolent Association will “vigorously” defend the rights of the two suspended officers who are its members, said Benny Boscio, the union’s president.
Boscio also implied that the failure to patrol the unit for two hours stemmed from staff shortages at Rikers Island, and complained that the Board of Correction has “consistently” opposed the hiring of more officers.
”Demanding that we do more with less support has forced many of our officers, including one of the officers in this incident, to work over 100 hours of overtime a month,” Boscio said. “No other municipal employees are expected to work under those conditions and expected to save lives at the same time.”
Davis had been in Rikers 11 times beginning in 1997. He was arrested June 1 on assault charges and was assigned to general population, even though a correction officer filled out a mental health referral soon after he entered the system, the report said.
On July 15 — eight days before Davis’ death — detainee William Johnstone, 47, was found unresponsive in the Vierno Center. He was pronounced dead just after 2 p.m.
A Board of Correction report in that case cites similar breakdowns as in the Davis case. The floor officer assigned to Johnstone’s housing area inexplicably left the unit for one hour and 43 minutes, from 12:03 p.m. to 1:46 p.m.
Though Johnstone’s cell window was covered with magazine clippings, the officer was able to peer inside, spot him unconscious on the floor, and call for medical help.
Johnstone’s cause of death has yet to be determined.
The revelations in the Davis and Johnstone reports mirror broader themes uncovered by the federal monitoring team in the Nunez class action case on violence at Rikers. Those problems include abandoned posts, failures by correction officers to tour jails, altered records and ignored rules about cell curfews and covered cell windows.
“The department’s own audits between January 2022 and May 2023 have not demonstrated any improvement (in) basic security practices including staff being off post, cell doors being manipulated/unsecured, inadequate touring practices, poor enforcement of lock-in, or poor movement of individuals in custody,” the Nunez monitoring team said in its July 10 report.
At a hearing Thursday in the Nunez case, Manhattan Federal Judge Laura Taylor Swain ordered Justice Department lawyers and lawyers for detainees to file motions supporting holding the city in contempt for its management of the jails and demanding an outside receiver to run the system.