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Rikers Guards Watched as Man Bled From Razor Wound

Two correction officers and a captain failed to act for at least ten minutes when a mentally ill man slit his throat with a razor at the Rikers Island jail complex last week, with the guards looking on as the man bled, according to five people with knowledge of the matter.

The man, Michael Nieves, 40, was taken to Elmhurst Hospital where he has been brain-dead and on life support since Friday, according to one official. The two officers and the captain have been suspended.

The incident was captured on video and it showed Mr. Nieves bleeding out onto the floor of his cell, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Mr. Nieves, who was not expected to survive, would be the third person suspected of dying by suicide and the 13th person to die this year after being held on Rikers Island.

The Department of Correction did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The death toll at the jail complex has continued to grow even as the city has implemented a series of reforms in an effort to ward off the threat of a federal court takeover. The judge overseeing the reforms has scheduled a status conference for November at which she will evaluate the city’s progress.

The Crisis at Rikers Island

Amid the pandemic and a staffing emergency, New York City’s main jail complex has been embroiled in a continuing crisis.

  • Inside Rikers: Videos obtained by The Times reveal scenes of violence and offer vivid glimpses of the lawlessness that has taken hold.
  • Decades of Dysfunction: For years, city officials have presided over shortcuts and blunders that have led to chaos at the jail complex.
  • 2022 Deaths: Sixteen people died in the jail system last year, the most since 2013. Deaths this year are on pace to be even higher.
  • Solving the Crisis: City officials, under pressure to put an end to the violence, had risked a federal takeover. A judge granted them more time to address the situation instead. 

But signs of violence and dysfunction persist. Stabbings and slashings remain high. Overdoses have skyrocketed behind bars, causing the deaths of at least five people this year. A large number of officers are still not showing up or are unavailable to work.

Unlike most of the deaths this year, Mr. Nieves’ grave injury was not the result of insufficient staffing. Mr. Nieves, who has been described by officials as seriously mentally ill, was most recently held in the “Program to Accelerate Clinical Effectiveness,” also known as the PACE units — Rikers Island’s most heavily staffed intensive-care psychiatric housing areas.

Fifty-three percent of the people on Rikers Island have a mental health diagnosis, including 17 percent who, like Mr. Nieves, are seriously mentally ill. The officers assigned to work in these units are specially trained to recognize signs of distress in mentally ill detainees.

Mr. Nieves had been in custody since April 2019 on charges of burglary, arson and other offenses for an incident in Upper Manhattan, records show. Since his arrest, Mr. Nieves was twice found unfit for trial and sent to a state psychiatric facility, once for seven months and then again this year from March to June, according to prosecutors.

Justice Laura A. Ward of State Supreme Court in Manhattan had ordered another exam to determine whether Mr. Nieves was fit to stand trial. He was due back in court on Sept. 6, court records show.

On Aug. 25, Mr. Nieves checked out a razor, two people said, and upon returning him to his cell, officers did not frisk him, and had not checked to ensure the razor was returned.

At 11:30 a.m., Mr. Nieves ran the razor across his neck, causing a six-inch-long laceration, according to four of the people with knowledge, and jail records.

The two officers and their captain watched for at least ten minutes as Mr. Nieves bled out, with one of the officers telling the man he “should not have cut himself,” a person familiar with the matter said. Medical staff arrived and Mr. Nieves was taken to the hospital. The next day, officials said, he was declared brain-dead.

William K. Rashbaum contributed reporting.

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