AFTER JUDY JEAN Caquias died in Rikers Island custody last year, her youngest sister received a box from her old apartment with all of her personal belongings. Her whole life distilled into a pile of odds and ends: pictures of family, old papers from school, an iron-on patch of a woman with a rainbow flag flying. Yankees memorabilia, an Obama sticker, a political flier: “Demand housing for the homeless.” A program for a community play she’d been cast in, and on the cover, a picture of her as a sad clown holding an American flag. And photos of herself: a grainy selfie she took in her bedroom wearing a gray tank top and gold chain, with close cut gray hair and reading glasses. Another where she’s a little thinner, in a white baseball cap and gray hoodie, eyebrows raised and mouth slightly open as if she’s about to say something.
On May 6 of last year, Caquias — who everyone knew as Jackie — was incarcerated at Rikers on a years-old warrant for having missed drug court dates. She was a tough lady at 61, according to the defense lawyer in her criminal case. But she had a history of liver disease, including a bout of Hep C, and in her 20s and 30s she had been addicted to heroin, which can also cause liver damage. Jackie had done time before on drug-related charges — but that was long ago. “She was very frightened of spending time in jail after all that time out,” her former lawyer Ilissa Brownstein says.
On Jackie’s second day at the Rose M. Singer Center, the island’s only women’s facility, the medical clinic ran lab tests that showed Jackie’s liver was severely stressed. Blood work two weeks later showed the same. Yet the doctors at Rikers didn’t send Jackie to a gastroenterologist for a liver exam. Instead, they prescribed her Tylenol 3 and iron, both dangerous for people with liver problems. The Tylenol 3 was discontinued after a week, but even after medical staff ordered the iron be stopped, the pharmacy continued dispensing it. Less than a month after Jackie arrived at Rose M. Singer, her system began to fail. She grew disoriented and delusional, and began vomiting so severely that blood and bodily tissue came up — all signs of acute liver failure. On June 25, 2014, after spending weeks in Elmhurst Hospital comatose and hooked up to machines, Jackie died. This according to a proposed amended notice of claim for a lawsuit to be filed this summer by her sister Daria Widing, and an analysis of health records by the medical expert hired for the case. The lawsuit, which will seek $20 million in damages, will charge that negligence by the City of New York contributed to Jackie’s death.
New York City’s chief medical examiner listed Jackie’s cause of death as “complications of upper gastrointestinal hemorrhage complicating hepatic cirrhosis due to Hepatitis C due to chronic substance abuse,” according to the medical expert. The New York State Commission of Correction, which conducts inmate mortality reviews, determined that Jackie’s cause of death was natural, and the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), in charge of overseeing Rikers medical care, reviewed Jackie’s case and closed it shortly after her death.
Both DOHMH and Corizon, the private company that runs medical services at Rikers, say that privacy law prohibits them from commenting on the medical care of individuals. Corizon says it is “deeply saddened by any death.”
I asked several former Rose M. Singer inmates if they had known Jackie. When I asked Namala Conteh, there was silence on the line. Then the memory filtered back: “Oh my god, the one that passed away? Oh my — you just reopened my wound again. The crazy thing is — I — I — mmmmmm, fuck. It’s crazy. That — Oh my god.”
Conteh was there at the clinic when Jackie was finally taken in. “They were so neglectful,” she says of the staff. “They had that blood all over their hands.”
JACKIE’S DEATH APPEARS to fit a pattern; a series of health care-related deaths alongside the never-ending reports of brutality in the Rikers men’s jails have dominated headlines in recent months. Last year, the AP reported that poor medical care at Rikers had helped precipitate at least 15 inmate deaths over the past five years. After medical staff failed to treat a 59-year-old inmate for constipation, he died of complications from an infected bowel. Another man went into a diabetic coma and died within two days of being incarcerated. According to a complaint filed by his family, a 19-year-old boy who complained of chest pain for seven months was never given an X-ray and died in 2013 from a tear in his aorta. The New York Times recently detailed another death, that of Bradley Ballard, an inmate with schizophrenia and diabetes who died after being locked in his cell for six days without medication or running water.