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Rikers Island detainees kept locked in cells during ongoing fire 

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Sfoskett | Wikimedia Commons

The New York City Board of Correction has released documents summarizing the recent events in the North Infirmary Command on Rikers Island. 

“At approximately 1:15 pm on April 6, 2023, a 30-year-old person in custody named Marvens Thomas allegedly ignited a fire inside his cell in a structurally restrictive unit in NIC.” 

Thomas has had a prolonged stay at NIC, already residing in prison for multiple years.   

“DOC records show that Mr. Thomas resided in various structurally restrictive units at NIC for a total of 584 consecutive days, from Aug. 30, 2021, until April 6, 2023.”

The Department of Correction records reported that Thomas had been involved in four other fire-related incidents while held in restrictive NIC units. 

The DOC staff were questioned about Thomas’ motivations for igniting the fire, suspecting it was an act of retaliation against the Emergency Service Unit for confiscating his footwear. 

“According to DOC’s Interior Operations Report, Mr. Thomas used batteries, headphone wires, and a remote control to start the fire. Once the fire ignited, Mr. Thomas added tissues and clothing, which caused the fire to swell.”

The Fire Department of New York  also questioned Thomas on his methods for starting the fire on April 7, 2023. 

During their investigation they confirmed the information found from the Interior Operations Report.

The DOC’s Fire Safety Unit claims that NIC Main is a fireproof structure. 

FSU’s 2023 mission statement also states that the DOC invested $100 million into eight Rikers Island prisons to install new fire alarm systems. 

FSU was also contracted for $4 million annually by the FDNY to test, inspect and maintain these newly installed fire alarm systems. 

However, DOC’s investigation into this incident concludes that a delayed call to action against the fires that broke out on April 6, 2023, was due to the understaffed Fire Safety Unit. 

“DOC’s organizational chart under the Deputy Commissioner of Security Operations shows that, on the date of the fire, the position of Fire Safety Manager was vacant, as well as four out of 15 FSU uniformed officers and three out of seven fire safety specialists. According to FSU staff, the position of Fire Safety Manager had been vacant since the person who previously held the role retired in late 2020 or early 2021.”

The NIC control room staff called FSU at 1:15 pm, reporting a fire on NIC’s second floor. 

After NIC staff called FSU again at 1:20 pm, they were informed that the two FSU officers on duty could not assist with the incident because they had been responding to a fire alarm activation from Robert N. Davoren Center since 1:05 p.m. 

At 1:28 p.m, the “B” post officer attempted to extinguish the fire, but further investigation from the board of directors revealed that the fire extinguisher did not function properly. 

Body-cam footage from this officer showed that their supervisor instructed correctional officers not to open any cells during the ongoing fire.

Eight individuals were still being held in their cells during the designated evacuation time. 

“Correction officers manually unlocked the cell doors, allowing people out of their cells and the housing area.

Board staff’s review of surveillance video footage shows correction officers removed the first individual from the area at 1:42 pm, 27 minutes after the fire alarm activated.” 

The FDNY took over fire suppression efforts at 1:58 p.m. and completed overhaul and suppression operations by 2:12 p.m.

“FNDY’s incident report states that ‘the byproducts of incomplete combustion’ (soot or carbon monoxide) extended to 15 correctional staff and four people in custody.”

Visitors were taken in for triages during the ongoing fires and complained about the heavy fire and smoke conditions.

“Correctional Health Services’ “CHS” medical staff received several complaints during triage, including difficulty breathing, chest pains and coughing of black material as a result of smoke exposure. Emergency Medical Services “EMS” transported four people in custody to hospitals following triage, as well as nine correctional staff.”

Thomas was transported to the Intensive Care Unit due to his severe burns. 

He was also required to have multiple skin graph surgeries. He was discharged from Harlem Hospital to Rikers Island on May 2, 2023. 

The fires caused damage to cells No. 8, 9 and 10 but individuals were sent back as early as April 8, 2023.

Complaints of black soot covering all areas of the unit and heavy remnants of smoke across the units were taken into consideration by Board investigators.

After observing the area, investigators realized that the units needed to be more suitable for humans to occupy. DOC sent out maintenance staff to clean and repaint the units. They were assigned new units on April 17, 2023.

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Nicole Bryk, News Editor
Nicole Bryk is the News Editor for The Ticker.
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