Rikers Island Guards Charged With Misconduct in Teen’s 2019 Attempted Suicide
For nearly eight minutes, more than a half dozen New York City Department of Correction officers stood by as an 18-year-old detainee named Nicholas Feliciano tried to hang himself in a Rikers Island jail cell, not intervening even when he flailed his arms and then went still. When the officers finally cut Mr. Feliciano down on Nov. 27, 2019, they let his limp body drop to the floor.
Over the next three years, as a severely brain damaged Mr. Feliciano received round-the-clock care at Bellevue Hospital, the guards remained on modified duty, allowed to collect their paychecks while working jobs that did not require contact with detainees. But on Monday, the Bronx district attorney filed felony charges against four of the jailers.
The arrests marked a rare instance of the Bronx district attorney, the prosecutor with jurisdiction over Rikers Island, filing criminal charges against correction officers whose inaction resulted in grave harm to a detainee.
Even as the conduct and decision making of jail staff members has been called into question in a number of deaths of incarcerated people in the past two years, including in eight other suicides since 2021, the charges stemming from Mr. Feliciano’s case were the first brought by the Bronx district attorney, Darcel D. Clark, against correction officials since 2019.
Other prosecutors have been quicker to file charges as conditions in the Rikers Island jail complex spiraled in recent years, with hundreds of officers failing to show for work and rising rates of violence and neglect.
In April, the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York charged two correction officers with smuggling drugs and accepting bribes from gangs, and, in November 2020, the Manhattan district attorney charged a correction captain with criminally negligent homicide after the captain allowed a man to hang in a Manhattan holding cell for 15 minutes and stopped other guards from saving him. Those cases are pending.
A representative of the Bronx district attorney’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Charged with official misconduct and reckless endangerment on Monday were the correction captain Terry Henry and Officers Kenneth Hood, Daniel Fullerton and Mark Wilson. All four men pleaded not guilty and were released on their own recognizance. Their lawyers declined to comment.
Mr. Feliciano’s family welcomed the charges against the officers on Monday, but they said they were too slow in coming.
“These officers should have been indicted a long time ago instead of still working at Rikers Island while Nicholas was still in the hospital trying to live,” Mr. Feliciano’s grandmother, Madeline Feliciano, said in an interview on Sunday. “It hurts. It’s very painful. It is devastating to see him the way he is because of somebody’s negligence.”
The case of Mr. Feliciano received widespread attention in 2019 after a New York Times investigation revealed errors by correction staff members who responded to his suicide attempt.
Mr. Feliciano had struggled with mental illness, and his suicidal tendencies were well documented during past stays in city juvenile centers, mental health units and on Rikers Island, where he had spent weeks on suicide watch and told staffers about his history of depression and psychiatric hospitalization.
Still, medical staff members failed to flag Mr. Feliciano as a suicide risk when he was ordered to be held at the Rikers complex on a parole violation charge in November 2019. Instead, they housed him with the general population at the George R. Vierno Center on Rikers, in a housing area known as being particularly rife with gang violence.
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.
- The Death of a Detainee: The case of a man who lay dead for hours in a Rikers jail cell before his body was discovered led to the firing of one correction officer and suspensions for others.
- 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.
After a fight on Nov. 27, a bloodied Mr. Feliciano was placed in an intake pen. Hours later, still in the cell awaiting medical attention, Mr. Feliciano used a sweater to try to hang himself from a U-shaped piece of metal in the ceiling above the toilet. The ceiling fixture was supposed to have been removed after another detainee had used it to attempt suicide six days earlier, two people with knowledge of the incident said.
For seven minutes and 51 seconds, seven correction officers, a captain and two paramedics walked by or peeked into Mr. Feliciano’s cell or watched him from a guard station. But none of them intervened, surveillance video showed.
Mr. Feliciano’s friend, Alfonso Martinez, said he was nearby, on a gurney flanked by the two paramedics, when he saw his friend hanging and begged for someone to help him. By the time Mr. Feliciano was cut down, he had suffered serious injuries. He remained in a coma and on life support for weeks.
Soon after, three officers and a correction captain were suspended for 30 days without pay for failing to help Mr. Feliciano.
Mr. Henry, the captain who had ignored Mr. Feliciano as he was hanging, had been disciplined in a similar case in 2015, when, as a correction officer, he failed to provide medical aid to a man who complained of chest pain as he gasped for air and convulsed on the floor, according to a lawsuit brought by his family. The man died, and the city settled the lawsuit for $1.59 million.
Still, Mr. Henry was promoted to captain, and in 2019, in the months before Mr. Feliciano’s attempted hanging, he received two more complaints for failure to supervise, personnel records show.
The Board of Correction, a jail oversight panel, said in a report made public last year that many of the red flags raised by Mr. Feliciano’s case not only still persist at Rikers but have become more pronounced as conditions there have worsened.
A lawyer for Mr. Feliciano, David B. Rankin, who represents more than two dozen other formerly incarcerated people and their families who have either died or been seriously injured at Rikers, said city officials should move quickly to shut the troubled complex down.
“It’s so frustrating to see literally the same neglect kill and catastrophically injure person after person,” Mr. Rankin said. “The level of mismanagement and just complete neglect is mind-boggling in a city like New York.”
The death toll in the jail system has mounted over the past two years as city officials have struggled to restore order. So far in 2022, 11 people have died after being held in city jails, including two by suicide. Last year, 16 people died, including six by suicide.
Responding to the deepening disorder in the jails, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan expressed concern about the conditions at Rikers, where some detainees have gone without food and medical care, and in April raised the prospect of a federal court takeover.
Since 2020, instances of self-harm among detainees have also risen, averaging 1,500 a year with roughly 9 percent of the incidents resulting in serious injuries.
A federal judge has given the Correction Department until October to show improvement or risk losing control of the jail complex to an independent overseer. City officials have pledged to turn the facility around.
Mr. Feliciano will remain at Bellevue’s brain injury unit, where he uses a walker to get around. He cannot eat by himself or brush his teeth or get dressed without help. Doctors have told Mr. Feliciano’s family that his brain had been damaged by a lack of oxygen during his suicide attempt and that he might never be the same.
Though Mr. Feliciano can no longer have normal conversations, he did recently learn to say “I love you,” his grandmother said.
Mr. Feliciano’s family has struggled to find a permanent place for him to live while receiving care. His medical costs will be in the tens of millions of dollars, Mr. Rankin said. The family has filed two lawsuits in state and federal court. Both are pending.
“Our lives have not been the same,” Ms. Feliciano said. “I pray to God some justice is done on behalf of Nicholas.”