Members of New York City’s Board of Correction are alarmed by the way jail officers have been using so-called “decontamination showers.” The stalls in Rikers Island are designed to rinse detainees after they’ve been hit with chemical sprays used to break up fights and violence.
But documents obtained by the I-Team show the jail oversight board has raised concern about several instances where the narrow, enclosed shower stalls are being used as cages to isolate prisoners for hours at a time.
“One of the decontamination showers that I viewed last week was a locked cage,” said Dr. Robert Cohen, a Board of Correction member who visited Rikers Island this month. “It was a shower but it was a locked cage.”
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This week, two prisoners at Rikers Island died in custody. One of them, Elijah Muhammad, 31, spent hours locked in a shower stall last month.
According to a Board of Correction email obtained through a public records request, Muhammad was locked in a shower stall just after 2am on June 10th after he got into a fight with jail staff. The email says he wasn’t removed from the metal cage until 6.5 hours later, when he was discovered by the jail’s acting warden.
“Acting Warden Harvey was touring the area and discovered Mr. Muhammad in the shower cage with a ligature around his neck,” the email said. Muhammad survived the apparent attempt to harm himself, but the Board of Correction email questioned the prolonged use of a shower stall to keep him confined.
“What makes his placement particularly alarming is that he was not sprayed with [chemical spray] . . . so there was no need for a decontamination shower,” the email said.
One month after his confinement to that shower stall, Muhammad was found unresponsive in another cell. Autopsy results are pending.
The Department of Correction did not respond to specific questions about the use of decontamination showers, but noted that one staff member was immediately terminated after Muhammad’s death and all prisoner deaths result in administrative investigations to correct potential deficiencies. At this month’s Board of Correction public meeting, Commissioner Louis Molina said decontamination shower stalls are just one part of what he termed “de-escalation units” whose purpose is to keep detainees and staff safe after violent outbursts.
“Each of our facilities’ de-escalation units provides a secure and safe place to place individuals post an incident,” Molina said.
Sanford Rubenstein, an attorney for Elijah Muhammad’s family, said because the detainee had known mental health problems, it seems clear time in isolation played a role in his death.
“When you look at that cage, whether it’s called a de-escalation unit or however they choose to identify it, it is cruel and inhumane,” Rubenstein said.
The Muhammad family has filed notice they intend to sue New York City for $25 million over the death in custody. And they aren’t the only ones.
Tamara Carter’s son, Brandon Rodriguez, 25, committed suicide last year while locked inside a decontamination shower. She has also filed notice she intends to sue.
“I can’t imagine what my son went through,” Carter said. “I find it completely disgusting that no one is doing anything about it.”
Days before he hung himself in August of 2021, Rodriguez was involved in a jailhouse fight that left him with a fractured orbital. When he was discharged from the hospital and returned to jail, Rodriguez got into another altercation with jail staff and was locked in a decontamination shower. In testimony before New York’s State Assembly Committee on Corrections, the former head of uniformed jail staff confirmed Rodriguez was locked in a shower stall, but said detainees are not supposed to be left there for hours at a time.
“The shower areas are utilized for persons who have been involved in uses of force or incidents whereas chemical agents have been deployed. Upon the person being decontaminated from the chemical agents, it is the responsibility of the correction officers to remove the person from the shower pen,” said former Chief of Department Kenneth Stukes.
At this month’s public meeting, the Board of Correction asked DOC to investigate several questionable uses of decontamination showers and to install camera systems to document when detainees enter and leave the shower areas.
In one memo obtained by the I-Team, jail overseers recounted the story of a mentally ill prisoner who spent more than a day locked in a shower stall.
“In sum, it appears that [the prisoner] might have been confined to the decontamination shower cage for more than 24 hours, without access to food or medical or mental health assistance,” the memo read.