He Nearly Qualified for Release From Rikers. Instead, He Died There.
When Gov. Kathy Hochul announced on Friday that nearly 200 people being held at the Rikers Island jail complex on minor parole violations would …
When Gov. Kathy Hochul announced on Friday that nearly 200 people being held at the Rikers Island jail complex on minor parole violations would be immediately released, Isaabdul Karim was not on the list.
Ms. Hochul’s order, designed to ease a roiling crisis inside the notorious jail, ordered the release of people whose violations, like Mr. Karim’s, were considered technical. But only detainees who had been locked up for 30 days as of Ms. Hochul’s order qualified; Mr. Karim had then been incarcerated for 29.
On Sunday, his 31st day at Rikers, Mr. Karim died minutes after suffering a medical emergency, and after what his lawyers and longtime partner said was weeks without medical and mental health care. He was the 11th person to die while in the custody of New York City’s jail system this year.
The death of Mr. Karim, a 42-year-old father of two, underscored the conjoined crises afflicting Rikers Island — rampant staff absenteeism and an increase in coronavirus cases — which officials, detainees, lawyers and staff have said has led to inhumane conditions at the jail complex and severe deficiencies in medical and mental health care for those being held there.
Mr. Karim, who used a wheelchair and had hypertension, diabetes and a history of epilepsy and psychiatric issues, contracted the virus while in jail, according to his lawyers, though the official cause of death has not been determined. It is unclear whether release would have kept Mr. Karim alive.
“Providing for the safety of incarcerated people is our core mission, and I am heartbroken that we have seen yet another death of a human being entrusted to our care,” Vincent Schiraldi, the commissioner of the Department of Correction, said in a statement. He notied that the cause of death appeared to be natural, but added, “that doesn’t change the fact that we have serious issues in our jails.”
Ms. Hochul signed a new law on Friday, known as the Less Is More Act, in an effort to reduce jail populations by ending the practice of incarcerating people who commit minor parole violations. In keeping with the standards set by the law, she ordered the release of 191 people from Rikers, 165 of whom had been released by Monday afternoon.
Under the new law, which goes into effect fully in September of next year, incarceration would be eliminated for most people accused of technical parole violations — like breaking curfew or missing an appointment. But certain minor violations could still result in up to 30 days in jail.
The list of detainees on Rikers who had met the 30-day criteria was created on Sept. 16 — a day before the order and two days before Mr. Karim would have been eligible.
“He should have been released,” said Lorraine McEvilley, director of the Parole Revocation Defense Unit at the Legal Aid Society. “It’s an illustration of the life-or-death situation people are in when they are locked up on parole violations.”
But Thomas Mailey, a spokesman for the Department of Correction and Community Supervision, said that Mr. Karim’s case would have been reviewed this week, and that he had missed the cutoff for release by days, not hours. Future releases, he said, will continue on a rolling basis.
Mr. Karim, who was released from prison in June 2018 after he had been convicted of selling cocaine to an undercover officer, was ordered to complete two years of supervised release, according to his lawyers and state records.
But by January 2020, Mr. Karim had stopped meeting with his parole officer, and a warrant was issued for his arrest, state officials and his lawyers said.
Then, in August, Mr. Karim was apprehended by the Department of Correction and Community Supervision’s Office of Special Investigations, which took him to Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx for medical treatment. His longtime partner, Felicia Huff Bullock, said in a phone interview on Monday that Mr. Karim had been stabbed in an altercation.
He was hospitalized overnight. On Aug. 18, he was sent to Rikers.
Mr. Karim was held in an intake cell for 10 days, his lawyers and Ms. Huff Bullock said. He had scant access to food and was denied medication, they said. Jail and correctional health officials did not immediately respond to questions about the allegations.
“‘They’re not feeding us,’” Ms. Huff Bullock recalled him saying during a phone call. “‘I don’t know what’s going on. They are treating us like animals; worse than animals.”
At his preliminary hearing on the parole violation on Aug. 31, Ms. McEvilley said his lawyers asked for an early release, citing his deteriorating health. The hearing was cut short, she said, after Mr. Karim suffered an asthma attack. He was scheduled to return for an arraignment on Sept. 27.
But advocates for incarcerated people said Mr. Karim should never have been detained.
“He should have been in the community with his family, friends and network, not in a jail plagued by an ongoing humanitarian crisis,” said Tina Luongo, the attorney in charge of the Legal Aid Society’s criminal defense practice. “Technical violations — including marijuana use and failing to report, the noncriminal charges that led to Mr. Karim’s remand — should not amount to a death sentence.”
In the days before his death, Mr. Karim had slipped and fallen in a shower and later complained of chest pain, Ms. Huff Bullock said other detainees told her. She said doctors had planned to perform an X-ray, but never did. By Sunday, Mr. Karim had complained that his chest pain had worsened, Ms. Huff Bullock said. He died in a medical clinic in the North Infirmary Command at 7:25 p.m.
“They were really playing Russian roulette with him,” Ms. Huff Bullock said through tears. “They allowed him to die.”
She blamed Mayor Bill de Blasio and jail officials for not doing more to save Mr. Karim and castigated correction officers, some of whom have been accused of calling in sick to avoid having to work. Nearly a third of the jail system’s officers have been out sick or otherwise unable to work with detainees.
“These people are getting paid for nothing,” Ms. Huff Bullock said. “Somebody’s got to stand up, and nobody is standing up.”
The city responded to the absenteeism on Monday by filing a lawsuit against the union representing its jail officers, saying that the staff absences that have led to a crisis on Rikers amounted to an illegal strike that had endangered staff and detainees alike.
And on Monday evening, the lawyers behind a civil rights lawsuit that detailed widespread abuses at Rikers — and led to a 2015 agreement appointing a federal monitor to oversee the jail — filed an emergency motion, citing the “exceptional danger” facing detainees because of the collapse in jail functions. The lawyers asked for an emergency court hearing and possibly the release of detainees.
Dhuha Abdul-Karim, 41, of Long Island, Mr. Karim’s half sister, said she was devastated when she learned of her brother’s death Monday morning. The two hadn’t spoken in close to six years because of Mr. Karim’s continued involvement in “criminal activity,” Ms. Karim said.
Ms. Karim said she tried to get in touch with him after seeing a news story that said he attempted suicide and swallowed a battery while he was being held at Rikers in 2016, but she was unable to reach him.
“When he moved out of my house, I don’t know what happened to him,” she said.
Jonah E. Bromwich and Precious Fondren contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.