The morning of September 27, at the beginning of their shift in criminal court, public defenders across New York City did what they always do during their clients’ first appearance before a judge: They stated their own names for the record and whom they were there to represent. But on this day, these defenders added a twist: They spoke up in honor of each of the 12 people who, as of that day, had died in city jails in 2021, nearly all of them on the Rikers Island jail complex. Their names and the circumstances of each of their deaths, which are a direct consequence of the city’s own neglect for the people in its custody, were all read into the court’s record — with a demand that no one else be detained pretrial, lest they risk a similar fate.
This statement for the record was a product of organizing within Five Boro Defenders, a collective of lawyers serving indigent clients in New York City, which researched the publicly reported details surrounding each of the deaths. Five Boro Defenders member Maryanne Kaishian wrote the statement, which was shared with defenders across the city. After the reading of the statement, which was captured by reporters for The Intercept and The New Yorker, walkouts and rallies took place outside all five courthouses — in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island.
Inquest is publishing this prepared statement below in full — both to show how public defenders have responded to the ongoing crisis in New York City jails, and as an example of how lawyers, too, can organize and stage actions against the inhumanity of the system. In this case, they did so in the hopes of preventing entirely preventable death, illness, and trauma at the hands of the state.
COLLECTIVE ACTION: NAMES OF THE DEAD AND CALL FOR THE RECORD*
- I appear in honor of the memory of Stephan Khadu, age 24, who died in DOC custody on September 22 after being found unresponsive at VCBC, our City’s floating jail barge.
- I appear in honor of the memory of Isa Abdul Karim, age 42, who died in DOC custody on September 19. Mr. Karim was disabled and contracted COVID-19 after languishing for 10 days at intake on Rikers Island.
- I appear in honor of the memory of Esias Johnson, age 24, who died in DOC custody on September 7th at Rikers Island after DOC staff repeatedly failed to bring him to his court appearances.
- I appear in honor of the memory of Segundo Guallpa, age 58, who died in DOC custody on August 30th. Mr. Guallpa was found unresponsive in the North Infirmary Unit at Rikers Island in an apparent suicide.
- I appear in honor of the memory of Brandon Rodriguez, age 25, who died in DOC custody on August 10. Mr. Rodriguez was found unresponsive in OBCC on Rikers Island in an apparent suicide.
- I appear in honor of the memory of Robert Jackson, age 42, who died in DOC custody on June 30. Mr. Jackson was found dead in his cell on Rikers Island after a guard abandoned his post.
- I appear in honor of the memory of Jose Mejia Martinez, 34, who died in DOC custody on June 10. He was experiencing an obvious medical emergency and asking for help for over an hour, but no help came. His cellmate discovered him dead in his bed.
- I appear in honor of the memory of Richard Blake, age 45, who died in DOC custody on April 30. He had repeatedly told staff he was not feeling well at OBCC on Rikers Island, but help never came.
- I appear in honor of the memory of Thomas Braunson III, age 39, who died in DOC custody on April 19. He was a new father to a 3-month-old baby girl.
- I appear today in honor of the memory of Javier Velasco, age 37, who died in DOC custody on March 19. Mr. Velasco was found hanging in his cell after attempting suicide three days earlier.
- I appear in honor of the memory of Tomas Carlo Camacho, age 48, who died in DOC custody on March 2. Mr. Camacho was found unresponsive in a mental health observation unit on Rikers with his head through a cuffing slot on his cell door. He died at the hospital after being granted “compassionate release.”
- I appear in honor of the memory of Wilson Diaz-Guzman, age 30, who died in DOC custody on January 23. He was found hanging from a sprinkler head in his cell.
- I appear today in honor of all those who have died before, those who have died after contracting COVID-19 or experiencing trauma in custody who are not included in the DOC’s count, and in service to all of those at risk of the same fate.
As an officer of the court, I am demanding the release of every person who comes before this Court in recognition of their risk of death and serious harm in City jails, including subjection to internationally recognized forms of torture. Sending a person presumed innocent to any City jail facility is a potential death sentence.
*This script may be read once, as you enter your name for the record during your first appearance, or prior to every appearance you make. This is a decision for individual defense attorneys depending on multiple factors in the interest of the people you represent.
Editor’s note: On October 15, Victor Mercado of the Bronx became the 13th person to die in custody in a New York City jail. He died of complications from COVID-19, which he contracted while awaiting trial on weapons charges after a judge set bail at $100,000.