In September 2013, Bradley Ballard, a mentally ill prisoner at New York’s Rikers Island jail, was found unconscious on the floor of his solitary cell — naked, covered in feces, and with his swollen and infected genitals tied in a rubber band. He died just hours after prison guards finally entered the cell and rushed him to a hospital.
But Ballard had spent a whole week in that cell in the prison’s mental observation unit, with guards passing by and looking inside but never entering to check on him, according to an investigation by the Associated Press, which obtained documents detailing the 39-year-old inmate’s horrifying end. The documents also revealed that Ballard was not given his medication during that week.
A video also obtained by the AP shows another prisoner delivering a tray of food to Ballard’s cell a day before his September 11 death and covering his nose — likely because of the stench that emanated from the cell, where Ballard had clogged the toilet so that it overflowed.
"He didn't have to leave this world like that. They could have put him in a mental hospital, got him some treatment," Ballard's mother, Beverly Ann Griffin, told the AP. "He was a caring young man."
But Ballard’s tragic case is not an isolated one. In February, Jerome Murdough, another mentally ill inmate, was also found dead in his Rikers cell. Due to a malfunction with the heating system, the room had turned into an oven of more than 101 degrees. Murdough’s mother filed a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit against the city last week.
"I know he was yelling for help and nobody ever came," Alma Murdough, said at a press conference announcing the suit. "He was hollering for help, and nobody came."
Murdough, who was a homeless veteran, was at Rikers because he couldn’t make the $2,500 bail for a minor trespassing charge. Ballard, who was put in solitary confinement after making an obscene gesture at a female guard, had been arrested in Texas for assaulting and exposing himself to a bus driver, but was sent back to New York where he was on parole after an earlier assault conviction.
'This is a horrific story of severe neglect in a unit that is supposed to provide for individuals with mental illness.'
In a statement to VICE News, Joe Ponte, Commissioner for New York City’s Department of Correction, said: “I share Mayor de Blasio’s belief that we must do better by inmates who suffer from mental health issues, and by taking steps like improving coordination and information sharing between security staff and mental health staff, we will.”
The deaths drew strong condemnation of Rikers, which is notorious among prisons for its rates of inmate violence, guard brutality, and mistreatment of the mentally ill. The jail also has one of the nation’s highest rates of solitary confinement, according to reports, and about 40 percent of its 12,000 inmates are mentally ill.
Mental health experts have consistently denounced the widespread practice of solitary confinement as cruel and destructive, as well as especially harmful to minors and mentally ill inmates, whose mental suffering it aggravates. Experts have also regularly pointed to Rikers' inadequate resources to deal with its growing population.
'Solitary confinement is no substitute for psychiatric treatment for prisoners who suffer mental illness.'
Solitary has increasingly come under scrutiny nationwide — as prison rights group have pushed to end or at least reduce the practice. Last year, Rikers itself started to take steps to reduce the use of solitary for the mentally ill — a change that officials are now saying has led to increasing assaults on prison staff, according to a recent New York Times report.
But that change didn't come soon enough to save Ballard from his miserable death.
Sarah Kerr, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, told VICE News that Ballard was "left unattended in his cell and overlooked by security and clinical staff for days while his medical and psychiatric condition deteriorated horribly."
"Clearly those staff members did not follow their own procedures. Instead, this tragic and preventable death occurred without intervention by those charged with his care. This is a horrific story of severe neglect in a unit that is supposed to provide for individuals with mental illness," she continued.
Kerr pointed out that this is "only one in a series of horrible deaths of individuals with mental illness in our jails" and pushed for the city to implement major reform to "remedy this and other persistent problems."
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), told VICE News that: “Solitary confinement is no substitute for psychiatric treatment for prisoners who suffer mental illness.” She added: "This case appears to be a tragic example of the human toll of the culture of neglect and hostility that underlies the excessive resort to solitary confinement in our prison system.”
Earlier this year, the NYCLU reached a deal with the New York State Department of Community Corrections to reform the way solitary confinement is used in New York state’s prisons — making New York the first state to remove minors from solitary.
The agreement, which followed a class action lawsuit by the civil rights group, required the state to also take immediate steps to remove "pregnant inmates and developmentally disabled and intellectually challenged prisoners from extreme isolation,” the NYCLU said in February.
But because Rikers is a city jail, that deal doesn’t apply there.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi