Rikers Death Pushes Toll in N.Y.C. Jails to 13 This Year

The man who died contracted the coronavirus while awaiting trial on weapons charges after being unable to post $100,000 bail, his lawyer said.

Thirteen people have died in New York City’s jails, making 2021 the system’s deadliest year since 2016. Most of the deaths occurred on Rikers Island.
Credit…Uli Seit for The New York Times

A Bronx man who was being held at the Rikers Island jail complex died on Friday after, his lawyer said, he contracted the coronavirus — the 13th death in custody during an especially deadly year in New York City’s jails.

The man, Victor Mercado, 64, had been held on weapons charges since July after being unable to pay the $100,000 bail a Bronx judge set in his case when he fell ill last week, his lawyer, James A. Kilduff, said.

Mr. Kilduff said he had asked the judge to lower the bail last month, arguing that his client’s poor health — Mr. Mercado used a wheelchair and was overweight — made him especially susceptible to the virus.

“I explained the family had limited resources, and they left the bail conditions as it was,” Mr. Kilduff said on Friday after learning of Mr. Mercado’s death. “It could have been avoided. This is a tragedy.”

Mr. Mercado, who was known in the Mott Haven neighborhood for helping building superintendents and bodega owners, was arrested over the summer after the police found a handgun that they said belonged to him in a car. He denied the gun was his.

He entered the Correction Department’s custody as the city’s jail system was spinning out of control, weakened by decades of neglect and unable to function as the pandemic swept over the ranks of those being held and jail officers called in sick or otherwise did not come to work.


Credit…via Ray Rivera

After being held in a jail infirmary because of his health problems, Mr. Mercado was transferred to Elmhurst Hospital in Queens on Thursday when his condition worsened because of Covid-19 complications, Mr. Kilduff said. He added that he had talked to Mr. Mercado by phone that day, that his voice had been hoarse and that he sounded nervous.

At around noon on Friday, the judge in his case granted Mr. Mercado conditional release. An hour later, he died.

Mr. Mercado’s brother, Ray Rivera, 65, said that his family could not raise enough money for his bail and was reeling from their loss.

“We didn’t want him to die in there,” Mr. Rivera said. “I’m crushed.”

In a statement, Vincent Schiraldi, the correction commissioner, said that the cause of Mr. Mercado’s death appeared to be medical in nature pending further investigation and that he was “heartbroken” about it.

“Our department is more committed than ever to improve safety across the jail system for staff and detainees,” Mr. Schiraldi said in the statement.

More than 600 people in custody had confirmed cases of Covid-19 as of last week, city records show, up slightly from 589 the week before.

Mr. Mercado was not the only person to come to harm in the jail system this week. At around 5 p.m. Thursday, another detainee, Anthony Scott, 58, tried to hang himself in a holding pen at the Manhattan criminal courthouse. Mr. Scott was there after been arraigned on an assault charge, a court spokesman said, and had been ordered held on $15,000 cash bail or a $45,000 bond.

Guards and rescue workers cut him down and took him to Bellevue Hospital Center, where he was in critical condition on Friday, according to two people familiar with his case who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe details of a detainee’s health.

“We are outraged to learn that the city again has failed to protect our vulnerable clients in its custody, and this incident is the latest horrifying example of that ineptitude,” said Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at the Legal Aid Society. “Instead of receiving treatment, Mr. Scott was criminalized for his mental illness.”

The incidents this week occurred as city officials faced increasing pressure to restore order at the Rikers Island complex, where inmates have committed violent acts while wandering freely and guards have participated in beatings or failed to intervene in emergencies.

On Thursday, Richard Wilson, 57, who had worked as a correction officer since 2002, became the latest guard to face criminal charges amid the jail system’s staffing crisis. The authorities said he had sexually abused a female correction officer when he forced himself on her in a parking lot in August 2019.

Mr. Wilson was arraigned on Friday and released on his own recognizance. His lawyer, Peter Troxler, said his client “categorically denies the allegations.”

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Jan Ransom