Dying man’s cries for help at Rikers Island went unheeded, fellow detainees say

Two people in the same unit recalled how jail guards failed to respond to Donny Ubiera’s fight for his life.

The jails complex on Rikers Island

The jails complex on Rikers Island Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

On Tuesday morning, Donny Ubiera died in his cell in the George R. Vierno Detention Center, also known as “GRVC,” on Rikers Island. He is the eighth person to die in the custody of the New York City Department of Correction so far this year. 

In an official notice to the press, DOC reported that Ubiera, who was 33 years old, “was found unresponsive in his cell in the George R. Vierno Center at approximately 5:15 a.m.” and “received immediate medical care but was pronounced dead at approximately 5:51 a.m.”

But two people detained in the same housing unit as Ubiera told City & State that correction officers failed to respond to Ubiera’s pleas for medical assistance in the hours before he died. Both Jose Carrillo and a second man (who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation) were housed with Ubiera in Unit 13B of GRVC, a special mental health observation unit intended to monitor people who had made multiple suicide attempts. They both spoke to City & State via jail-provided tablets after GRVC was placed on lockdown and all phone calls were suspended. DOC declined to comment beyond their initial statement to the press.

Carrillo, who occupied a cell across the corridor from Ubiera, said that Ubiera had said that correction officers were targeting him. The night before Ubiera died, Carrillo recalled, Ubiera whispered to him after dinner, “They are after me and I see the way the CO’s treat you: They are going after you next.”

According to Carrillo, another person in custody gave Ubiera a large amount of methadone powder, which he mixed with water and drank out of a single-serving milk carton. It was such a large dose, Carrillo said, that Ubiera offered to share some of it with Carrillo, who declined the offer. The second person who spoke to City & State confirmed that he saw Ubiera drinking methadone out of a milk carton at dinner on Monday evening and warned him against drinking all of it, since Ubiera had not been prescribed methadone and such a large dose could be dangerous. Methadone is only supposed to be administered to detainees under supervision, but the person said that those who receive methadone will often “hold” it in their mouths and then spit it up to trade and share with others in custody. 

After dinner, Carillo said, Ubiera sat near his cell and could be seen visibly nodding off as a result of the methadone he was drinking. Carillo last saw Ubiera alive at 9 p.m., when the people in custody were locked in their cells for the night. 

Around 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Carrillo said, he could hear Ubiera calling for help and banging on his cell door while gasping for air, seemingly unable to breathe. Both Carrillo and the other person in custody said that the correction officers on the unit failed to respond to Ubiera’s repeated calls for help. 

According to the sources, once the cell doors opened at 5:00 a.m. and correction officers made their rounds on the unit, they found Ubiera unresponsive. Carrillo said that he witnessed correction officers administer the overdose reversal drug naloxone to Ubiera and also attempt CPR on him. He said the correction officers also asked him to get his asthma pump for Ubiera, but it was too late. By the time he returned to Ubiera’s cell with the asthma pump, Carrillo said, Ubiera’s body was purple and cold to the touch. He added that a medical team arrived at Unit 13B approximately five minutes later, roughly an hour after he first heard correction officers first call for medics. According to Carrillo, Ubiera’s body remained on the floor in the unit for hours after his death.

In the aftermath of Ubiera’s death, Carrillo said, the GRVC facility was placed on lockdown and correction officers assigned to his housing unit were replaced.

A DOC spokesperson declined to comment when when asked whether any correction officers on duty at the time that Ubiera died were replaced or suspended. Patrick Ferraiuolo, the president of the Correction Captains Association, told City & State that no correction officers have faced disciplinary action or suspension in connection with Ubiera’s death. “It’s routine to take staff off their posts when a death occurs in order to write reports and receive medical attention for the emotional distress they might be feeling,” he said.

Ubiera was arrested last June, following an alleged spree of unpredictable violent slashings and attacks in Queens. He was initially charged with multiple counts of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to cause injury and robbery. After an elderly man he allegedly slashed in a subway station died of his injuries, his charges were upgraded to second-degree murder. He was eventually transferred to Unit 13B, the special unit for people who have attempted self-harm multiple times while at Rikers. Carrillo said that Ubiera had been depressed lately and had even spoken about self-harm, but he believed that Ubiera wanted the methadone in order to get high – not to self-harm. 

Both Ubiera and Carillo have pending civil rights lawsuits against the DOC, and Carrillo worries that correction officers may target him for speaking out. On Tuesday, he said, the water to his cell’s sink and toilet was suddenly cut off without explanation.

David Broderick, a civil rights attorney representing Carrillo, told City & State that correction officers had administered the wrong medication to Carrillo over the weekend, leaving him paralyzed for a night. “They used to beat my clients, now they are drugging them,” he said of the correction officers. 

Broderick also complained about the general lack of supervision at the GRVC facility, which he said has enabled high levels of violence. On Monday, Broderick sent an email to DOC’s legal department requesting that Carrillo be transferred to another unit. “Safety is a fundamental right, irrespective of one's status,” the letter reads. “I trust you acknowledge the seriousness of this situation and will act promptly to address these concerns. My client has conveyed a genuine fear for his life, and I implore you to prioritize his safety and well-being.”

Ubiera is the eighth known person to die in DOC custody so far this year and the 27th to die since Mayor Eric Adams took office. The growing death toll and high levels of violence at Rikers Island has led a growing number of people and organizations – including The Legal Aid Society, New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, federal prosecutor Damian Williams and court-appointed federal monitor Steve Martin – to call for the federal government to assume control over the city’s beleaguered jails system. Earlier this month, a federal judge took the first steps in a process that could eventually result in the jails being put into federal receivership.

Maryanne “MK” Kaishian, a civil rights attorney who represents a number of people in custody in Rikers, told City & State that correction officers are supposed to make rounds every 15 minutes in mental health units like the one that housed Carrillo and Ubiera, since the people there are considered at risk for self-harm.

The Legal Aid Society, which represented Ubiera in criminal court, called on DOC to investigate the circumstances of his death: “We call for a sweeping investigation and on DOC to inform the family and counsel of any findings at each step in the process. Close scrutiny should be paid to whether correctional staff and supervisors were actively engaged in supervising the housing area and conducting required tours. The federal monitor has found that staff and supervisors’ chronic failure to perform basic custodial duties has been a factor in many of the recent deaths. We await an immediate response from DOC on this tragic passing.”

Carrillo remains fearful for his safety. He said that a correction officer warned him that his communications with investigators and journalists were being monitored, and he should be “careful” about speaking about Ubiera’s death.