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ON SEPTEMBER 19, a New York City man named Isa Abdul Karim became the 11th person to die on Rikers Island, the city’s notorious jail complex, in less than a year.
Amid fresh alarm about inhumane conditions at the jails, Karim’s death underscored the reality that Rikers continues to be a place where people are exposed to extreme danger.
A week ago, medical officials warned publicly that the jail system on Rikers Island cannot guarantee the health and safety of the people locked up there, calling for emergency action to empty the jails and take them out of city control. Public officials, under pressure, enacted incremental long-term changes and bickered about whose responsibility it might be to take more immediate action.
The story of the 41-year-old’s death in custody sits at the intersection of the manifold crises on Rikers. Karim experienced the unchecked violence of Rikers and the vindictive, self-protecting fraternity of jail guards when he was beaten and punitively denied medical care during a previous stay on the island, according to an outstanding lawsuit.
A wheelchair user with underlying medical conditions, Karim was subjected to the harsh deprivations of the current conditions on Rikers. He spent 10 days on an intake unit at Otis Bantum Correctional Center, held in crowded pens with as many as a dozen people in each cage, spending the entire period in his wheelchair because of the lack of bunks.
“The pens are a crowded place with a lot violence and assaults and self-harm,” said a medical staff member working on Rikers and familiar with the facility, who asked for anonymity out of fear of official reprisal. “Officers are spraying pepper spray all the time. Nobody’s wearing a mask, and they’re all in an enclosed dank hallway. No one’s receiving medical care in there.”
Karim contracted Covid-19 in the intake pens and was taken to a quarantine facility where he received treatment and appeared to recover. Discharged and assigned to a housing unit, Karim suddenly experienced acute shortness of breath, became unconscious, and collapsed. He received CPR, but to no avail, and he was pronounced dead even before an ambulance arrived. A full autopsy has yet to be completed, and the official cause of death is unknown, but New York City Department of Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi said September 20 that Karim’s death “appears be natural.”
The medical staff member said that while the details of Karim’s death remain uncertain, questions about his precise cause of death should not obscure the basic truth that Rikers, especially now, is itself a serious health hazard. “This guy had a really stressful month,” the staff member said. “At worst, he died from something related to Covid which he got in the pens. At best, jail stressed his body very intensely and he had an acute event that killed him.”
The brutal conditions of long-term detention on intake units have health consequences, the medical staff member said. “We stress their bodies in significant ways because of environmental conditions, lack of sleep, lack of consistent access to food and medicine, because they’re not afforded access to the yard,” the staff member said. “That’s Karim’s story. That’s also Brandon Rodriguez’s story. That’s also Esias Johnson’s story.”
In the wake of Karim’s death, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new policy requiring that people held on Rikers not be kept in intake units longer than 24 hours.
Karim was subjected to the ordeal of detention even though in most states in the country he would never have been incarcerated. He was brought to Rikers after being arrested August 18 on an old technical parole violation warrant, though his parole had ended in June. New York has for years been virtually unique in the degree to which it reincarcerates people on parole for incidents as minor as addiction relapse, failing to be home by curfew, or missing an appointment with a parole officer.
Karim’s status — jailed on a technical violation of his parole — is precisely the subject covered by the Less is More Act, signed into law by New York Gov. Kathy Hochul September 17, under pressure from advocates for incarcerated people during the mounting crisis on Rikers. Hochul’s actions capped the amount of time people can be held on technical violations at 30 days, but at the time of her order, Karim had been in custody only 29 days, missing the cutoff. The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, which runs the parole system in New York, said Karim’s case would have been reviewed next week. Instead, he died on Sunday, on his 32nd day of being locked up, according to the Department of Correction’s Inmate Lookup Service.
KARIM’S COUSIN, Papa Samb, described him as a devout Muslim who was active in his local mosque. Karim, whose family came from Senegal, was close with Samb’s young son, to whom he taught verses of the Quran.
“They were amazingly close,” Samb said. “Just this morning he asked for Isa, and I had to lie to him and tell him Isa was not feeling well.”
Samb said Karim was arrested on his parole warrant from the hospital bed where he was recovering from being stabbed on the street.
“He was going to sue Rikers Island for all of the mistreatment,” Samb said. “He kept telling me, ‘They don’t want me to come out alive’ — because he was writing everybody’s name down, all the information of what they did to him.”
Samb said he had been speaking with Karim on the phone several times a day, praying with him, since he was put on Rikers. “Just yesterday, I was telling him to stay strong, bro — ‘You’re going to come out soon.’ We prayed together on the phone. We laughed like nothing was happening. He was a joking person. He was strong. I know him as a strong man.”