Rikers inmates sue New York, claiming they were trapped during prison fire

The Rikers Island prison complex is shown in the Bronx borough of New York City, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey, Archive

Inmates at New York’s Rikers Island jail are suing the city, alleging they were trapped in their cells during a prison fire that injured 20 people last year.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in Manhattan federal court, says 15 men were among those locked in rooms by corrections officers as the fire ripped through a housing unit for people with acute medical conditions requiring hospital care or complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The article stated that the men “suffocated from toxic black smoke, some vomiting, others losing consciousness, all gasping for air,” while prison staff fled to safety.

“The idea that detainees who have not been convicted of any crime can be locked in a burning building and left to suffer and die is, to most Americans, a barbaric idea reserved for movies and television shows depicting the atrocities and brutalities of the past,” the lawsuit reads.

Spokespeople for the city Department of Corrections and the Department of Health and Hospitals declined to comment, citing instead the city’s Law Department, which said it was reviewing the lawsuit and would respond in court.

The April 6, 2023, fire that injured 15 prison staff and five inmates was started by a 30-year-old inmate with a history of setting fires in prisons. Officials say he used batteries, headphone cords and a remote control to start a fire in his cell, then added tissues and clothes to fan the flames.

Joshua Lax, a lawyer representing 15 of the men, said the lawsuit is motivated by the Department of Corrections’ policy of keeping inmates on Rikers Island locked in their cells instead of evacuating them during fires, which occur hundreds of times a year.

“This practice forces them to inhale smoke produced by structure fires that contain a variety of toxins, poisons, and particulate matter that can cause life-threatening conditions,” he said in an email. “This practice violates the United States Constitution, local and state fire codes, standards of medical care, and, of course, human decency.”

The lawsuit follows a report released in December by an independent watchdog agency that found a number of shortcomings in the prison’s response to the fire.

The city’s penitentiary board said inmates were locked in their cells for nearly half an hour, and firefighting systems and equipment were not working in the affected unit of the prison. The complex could be taken over by federal authorities, and the city has long planned to close the complex altogether.

The council recommended that prison officers immediately open cell doors and escort prisoners to a safe place if they are locked in a cell when a fire breaks out. It also recommended that the department conduct regular inspections of sprinkler systems, among other measures.

As the fire spread, plumes of black smoke rose through the building’s ventilation systems and vents, saturating other housing units with toxic air, Lax said.

After its demolition, prison officials delayed or failed to conduct required medical examinations of people who may have been exposed to smoke for long periods of time, he added.

Soot and smoke residue were not properly removed from the entire building, Lax said, further exposing inmates to hazardous chemicals and particulate matter, leading to “serious respiratory, lung and heart problems” for some.

“We learned that despite hundreds of fires a year, sometimes in a single facility, DOC has done nothing to figure out why they have a fire crisis or how to end it,” he said, referring to the city’s Department of Corrections. “Worse still, knowing they have this crisis, DOC has no plans or training on how to evacuate detainees in the event of a fire or smoke in any of DOC’s facilities.”