Correction officer watch for 7 minutes as inmate tried to hang himself
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New York — At least five New York City correction officers failed to act for seven minutes as an 18-year-old detainee tried to hang himself at the Rikers Island jail complex, with some of them watching the suicide attempt before intervening, according to four people with knowledge of the matter.
The officers have been suspended while the city’s Department of Investigation conducts an inquiry, officials said. The inmate was hospitalised and put into a medically induced coma Tuesday, the people said.
The suicide attempt was captured on a video feed that the officers are expected to monitor periodically, according to the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the matter publicly. The actions of the officers, one of whom was a supervisor, were recorded by a separate camera, the people said.
“There is video of him and video of them,” one of the people said, referring to the inmate and the officers.
The inmate, Nicholas Feliciano, was in an empty holding pen in plain view of a central guard desk in the jail’s intake area, where officers can also monitor activity in cells via video feeds, the person said.
On the video, which was described to The Times, one officer can be seen going to the pen where Feliciano was hanging, opening the door, closing the door without entering and then walking away, the person said.
Cynthia Brann, the city correction commissioner, said in a statement that the agency had suspended three officers and a captain and confirmed that the city’s Department of Investigation was conducting an independent inquiry.
“The claims being made here are extremely troubling,” Brann said in the statement. “The safety and well-being of those in our custody is our No. 1 priority and an investigation into this incident is underway.” If warranted, she said, the officers could face “disciplinary action up to and including termination.”
Elias Husamudeen, the president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, said in a statement that the officers would “be given the best legal representation possible to ensure their rights are fully protected under the law.”
“They are innocent until proven guilty, just like anyone else in our justice system,” he added.
The episode is the latest in the troubled history of the aging jail complex, which has long been plagued by violence, abuse, neglect and mismanagement at levels that have made it among the most notorious correctional facilities in the United States.
In October, the City Council approved a plan to close Rikers Island within seven years and to replace it with what officials envision as safer, smaller and more humane jails that will become a model for the rest of the country.
Feliciano was in the Elmhurst Hospital Prison Ward, according to city jail records. He was on a respirator with no brain activity, the people with knowledge of the matter said. He was arrested November 19 on a parole violation and was being held at the complex’s George R. Vierno Center when he tried to hang himself.
One of the people with knowledge of the episode said that Feliciano had been in a fight the day he attempted suicide. After the fight, he was moved from the general housing area to the intake cell block, where he appeared to be in distress before he tried to hang himself.
The episode occurred one night last week, said one of the people with knowledge of the matter. Feliciano tied one end of a garment around his neck and the other around a pipe on the ceiling while standing on a waist-high partition separating a toilet from the rest of the pen, several of the people with knowledge of the matter said. He then stepped off the partition, the person said.
At some point, the person said, Feliciano apparently had second thoughts about what he was doing as he began to choke and tried to put his feet back on the partition in hopes of saving himself.
Seven minutes passed before the officers intervened to free Feliciano from the makeshift noose, said the person, who noted that Rikers Island inmates sometimes threaten suicide as a manipulative gesture. It was unclear, the person said, what Feliciano’s intentions might have been.
In 2012, the building where Feliciano tried to hang himself was the scene of a brutal beating of an inmate by five correction officers who were later convicted on charges that included attempted gang assault and official misconduct.
A spokeswoman for Darcel D. Clark, the Bronx district attorney, whose jurisdiction includes the Rikers Island complex, did not immediately return a call seeking comment. A Department of Investigation spokeswoman declined to comment.