Justice for Fabian Cruz: The Judicial & Legislative System Must Act

Alma Murdough and her sister Cheryl Warner hold a picture of Jerome Murdough (Photo c/o AP)

Once again the NYC Corrections Department has failed to protect an inmate with mental issues from death.

Staff at Rikers failed to follow procedure and ignored the urgent request from a psychiatrist that Fabian Cruz was in need of immediate round-the clock suicide observation.

Around 4:45 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, word went out to Rikers staff that Cruz was distraught and threatening to harm himself. According to jail policy, correction officers should immediately have put Cruz on round-the-clock suicide observation. However, this did not happen and Cruz was found dead in his cell with a bedsheet wrapped around his neck.

Mental health clinicians informed staff of the immediate threat that Cruz should be put on suicide watch and, assuming he was transferred, went to see him at least four times in order to provide needed therapy. He was not there because a correction officer did not transfer him as requested. This should have been done immediately. It wasn’t.

It appears that Mr. Cruz told the officer he did not want to go to the psychiatric unit. That was not his decision to make while under the supervision of the Department of Correction on Rikers Island. The psychiatrist had ordered him transferred and to be put under observation. No matter how hideous his crime had been and his admission of guilt, his life had to be protected. It wasn’t.

This case is another example of prevalent issues on the island like that of Jerome Murdough, a homeless veteran with mental health issues, who died from faulty equipment that heated his cell above 100 degrees. The dysfunction which pervades Rikers caused these men to die. The correction officer’s ignoring the request of the mental health clinician caused Cruz’s death and the lack of supervision caused Murdough’s death.

I strongly suggest that the guard and possibly others be brought before a Grand Jury by our District Attorney. Mr. Cruz’s family wants answers. “We are just trying to investigate what’s going on. We have no idea what’s going on right now. We just want justice for Fabian,” his mother, Amarilis Cruz, said.

We all want answers. The system has failed once again and another man’s life has been taken away. Regulations have to be adhered to. Those who do not adhere to regulations and procedures need to be suspended and prosecuted.

Mayor de Blasio has proposed several changes in how inmates are cared for at Rikers and at other correction facilities. He said that Rikers, “deeply needs a culture change”. Those include more surveillance cameras, more therapeutic programs, and additional training.

Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, released a report this past fall documenting severe abuse and neglect of teenage inmates. Mr. Bharara is threatening to sue the city if improvements are not made. In 2013 at least 129 inmates, 77% of whom were diagnosed as mentally ill, suffered serious injuries in incidents with guards. Many more beatings of inmates have occurred in stairwells and other areas without surveillance cameras and have not been reported. Cameras are needed to stop abuse.

Our District Attorney, the NYC Council and the Department of Correction have to act and act now.

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