Latest Rikers Island inmate suicide fuels more outrage from activists who demand facility’s closure

Rikers Island inmate Erick Tavira apparently took his own life early Saturday morning despite being held in a mental health observation area, according to published reports.

Tavira, 28, had been incarcerated on Rikers Island following his June 2021 arrest in Manhattan on strangulation and assault charges connected to an attack on a 14-year-old boy, the Daily News reported. Court records noted that he had been held in custody since then on $40,000 cash bail or $20,000 bond.

His death prompted a new round of outrage from criminal justice advocates who want Rikers Island permanently closed due to a prolonged history of violence, inhumane conditions and maltreatment of inmates and corrections officers alike.

More than a year after being jailed, Tavira was found dead from an apparent suicide by hanging at about 2 a.m. on Oct. 22 at the island’s George R. Vierno Center, multiple reports indicated. The Corrections Department, however, did not disclose the details about Tavira’s death in a statement, saying only that it was under investigation.

Tavira’s body was transferred to the Medical Examiner’s office for an autopsy to confirm exactly how the inmate died, the Corrections Department said.

“Our deepest condolences go out to Mr. Tavira’s family, friends and loved ones in their time of grief,” Corrections Commissioner Louis Molina said in an Oct. 22 statement. “We take the health and safety of everyone in our custody seriously, and we are conducting a preliminary investigation into this death.”‎

Tavira was the 15th individual to die in the Department of Corrections’ custody this year, the agency reported. Two other former Corrections inmates died this year after the department granted them compassionate release, according to PIX-11 News.

The 17 total inmates who died in the department’s care so far this year are one more than the 16 individuals who perished in DOC custody in 2021.

The Legal Aid Society, which represented Tavira, indicated that his death could have been avoided had he had access to proper mental health treatment rather than being thrown in jail. 

“Mr. Tavira’s case underscores the inevitable outcome when incarceration is used in lieu of treatment. Had Mr. Tavira had access to programming, today’s tragedy could have been completely avoided,” the Legal Aid Society said in a statement. “Carceral settings are no place for people struggling with mental or substance abuse issues, and all criminal legal system stakeholders must pursue alternatives that prioritize community-based resources over the confines of a cage.”

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said in a statement on Twitter that Tavira’s death served as “another stark reminder that we need change now.”