Rikers’ latest death highlights both mental health and supervision issues

The night before Michael Lopez died of an apparent drug overdose on Rikers Island earlier this month, he spoke to his mother on the phone and asked her to put the money into an app.

Jennie Rosario-Megibow reminded him that she had already paid some money into her commissioner’s account, she recalled 10 days after her death.

“I said, ‘Listen, I’ll think about it and talk about it tomorrow,” he told THE CITY.

They never spoke again.

Lopez, 34, was found unconscious the next morning inside a mental observation unit at the Anna M. Kross Center on July 15.

Frantic medical staff repeatedly tried to revive him and administered several doses of the opioid overdose drug Narcan, according to a prison source who knew the answer.

He was pronounced dead at 10:13 am, becoming the 11th person in the city’s prison system to die this year. This is able to surpass the 16 inmates who died last year, the highest number in decades.

‘I’m beyond the bruise’

Now, Rosario-Megibow and the prison investigators are looking for answers.

Lopez was seen on CCTV smoking a substance and snorting pills with several other inmates the night before he died, according to the prison source.

“Why didn’t someone do something about it?” Rosario-Megibow said in tears. “He was in the medical unit for evil’s sake.”

“I don’t understand,” he added. “I’m beyond the bruise. If he didn’t have money like he got his hands on it? “

An initial review of Lopez’s death by the city prison supervisory board raises similar questions.

The Board of Correction questioned whether the correction department’s staff shortage hindered the staff’s ability to conduct searches for smuggled drugs and weapons, according to the review obtained by THE CITY via a Freedom of Information Act request.

Michael Lopez died on Rikers Island on July 15, 2022.

Hiram Alexander Duran / THE CITY

“How do those in charge of facilities and special searches determine which areas of the prisons to search?” the review asked.

Ten days before Lopez’s death, correctional commissioner Louis Molina touted the department’s increased searches since he took over the Adams administration’s beginning in January.

“The tactical and search operations of smuggled weapons facilities have not been carried out for over two years in this department,” Molina told the WNYC.

Prison insiders said those more comprehensive searches were largely archived during the pandemic due to a lack of staff. They also point out that thousands of other, more targeted smuggling searches were conducted during that time.

Molina said in the radio interview that agents found over 2,700 smuggled weapons and over 400 smuggled narcotics during his seven-month term, “whether they are accessories or actual narcotics.”

But several prison sources have said drugs are still rampant behind bars, with the problem so common that officers often don’t stop inmates from using them openly.

For years, prison officials have accused visitors of introducing illicit drugs. But when visitors were banned during the pandemic, even more drugs were seized, THE CITY reported in February.

Those smuggling data also showed an increase in drug mail seizures during that period, but those accounted for less than a third of total drug recoveries between April 2020 and May 2021.

Prison officials across the country have struggled for years to stop the smuggling of books and newspapers soaked in suboxone, K2 and methamphetamine.

The board review also questioned whether staff assigned to monitor video feeds “share their observations with facilities in real time.”

This never happened in Lopez’s case, according to Rikers’ source.

“There are people in an office but they control all areas,” the insider said. “Impossible to see everything. [The overdose] was observed after the fact at the time of re-examination. Not in real time “.

Lopez’s death is still under investigation, but a prison captain who allegedly failed to properly visit the entire housing unit the night before his death has already been suspended, the department said.

“We are extremely saddened by yet another death in custody,” Molina said in a statement hours after the death. “No one should suffer the loss of a loved one while incarcerated and we are doing everything in our power to protect people and prevent further losses.”

Mental health deteriorates behind bars

Lopez, who grew up in Kips Bay, Manhattan, had been in jail since May 19 on charges of robbery and assault, according to court documents.

He was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age and should never have been locked up in prison, according to his family, medical experts and inmate advocates.

“Putting people in jail will only aggravate what happened with them,” said Dr. Ralph Aquila, medical director of Horizon House in Philadelphia, a nonprofit that “uses a holistic approach to address issues. psychiatric, medical and behavioral health impediments ”.

“It will make them even more wary of the future, and that’s just nonsense,” added Aquila, who was also the former senior medical director of Fountain House in New York, which helps people living with severe mental illness. About 40 percent of the city’s prison population suffers from some form of mental illness, according to the Department of Corrections.

Correction officers stand guard as Mayor Eric Adams takes a tour of Rikers Island, June 22, 2022.

Michael Appleton / Mayor’s Office of Photography

Even when mental health appointments are made behind bars, they are rarely kept. As reported by THE CITY last week, Dashawn Carter, who died of an apparent suicide on Rikers Island in May, had missed nearly 100 clinic visits.

Lopez had been arrested and locked up four times since April 2020, largely for what his defense team called “poverty crimes.”

His complete record and details of his alleged previous crimes have been erased by his death.

At first, he stole things from his family to pay for drugs, said Rosario-Megibow, who adopted him as a child through Edwin Gould Services For Children & Families.

“And then he got arrested every now and then for stealing from Duane Reade, CVS or Target,” he said. “It was a battle”.

He had agreed to participate in a long-term rehabilitation program, but his time was limited because he was on Medicaid, he said.

“He was really trying,” he recalled. “But her addiction took over. Her mental illness has taken over. ”

He started hearing voices and thinking the television was talking to him, he said, noting that he was never violent.

“He was asking me for money,” he said. “She would be angry. I wish God that I could have saved him ”.

Lopez struggled to take her meds especially after finding it reduced her libido, she recalled.

Once, after a stay in Rikers, he told her that he was paraded naked in front of all the inmates in his housing unit “so they can laugh at me.”

“It was just devastating,” he said, noting that it wouldn’t save him anyway because “he knew his story.”

During another time in Rikers, he saw that he had a broken tooth and a black eye, but he always had a clear answer as to what had happened, he recalled. More recently, he was homeless and was afraid of going to a shelter because he had been sexually assaulted during a previous stay, he added.

In prison, Lopez was represented by the Legal Aid Society, the largest group of public advocates in the city. She and other inmate advocates have asked a federal judge overseeing a long-standing class action against the DOC to appoint a federal bankruptcy trustee to take over the prison system.

“If Mr. Lopez had been spared detention, he would have been linked to programming and would be alive today,” the LAS said in a statement. “Regular deaths have become the status quo in OCD. The inability of the Adams administration to take immediate and bold action further demonstrates that they cannot be trusted to run prisons one more day and the appointment of a bankruptcy trustee remains necessary. “

“He never hurt anyone”

On Thursday, Rosario-Megibow recalled Lopez as a loving child who was “consumed” with severe mental health problems that led to multiple hospitalizations.

He was born on Thanksgiving, 1987, and was holding a bottle at an early age, his mother recalled. As a child, he attended Public School 116 on East 33rd Street, just down the block from their apartment.

But he was later transferred to a boarding school for troubled children, where he first attended the Family Foundation School, now known as Allynwood Academy, in rural Hancock, NY. In 2014, the school closed after several students spoke of abuses such as solitary confinement. and restrictions against students, the New York Times reported.

Jennie Rosario-Megibow surrounded by pictures from her son’s life.

Hiram Alexander Duran / THE CITY

Several former students died from drug overdoses and suicide, according to the report.

“They humiliated the children and I said I couldn’t put him there anymore,” her mother recalled.

So he moved him to Hyde School where he “excelled” until the age of 17, he said, noting that he was in honor of history and English and the captain of his football team.

But he was expelled when he asked a student who was 18 to buy liquor, according to his mother.

That also changed when she started experiencing hallucinations and other mental health symptoms.

“He never lost love,” she said. “He was a good guy. He has never hurt anyone. He is devastating. I’m just finding it so hard to believe he died in the hands of Rikers Island. ”

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