Last month, previously unknown details were brought to light regarding the suspicious circumstances surrounding the untimely death of 39 year-old Bradley Ballard, who died an inmate at New York’s notorious Rikers Island “Correctional” Facility. Though Ballard, whom doctors determined was mentally ill, died back in September, 2013, Rikers Island wasn’t exactly forthcoming about the circumstances leading to his death. Unfortunately, what happened to Ballard could almost be described as a regular occurrence at the Rikers Facility, where an astounding 40% of all inmates struggle with mental illness and are frequently exposed to abuse and neglect at the hands of staff members. A mere five months after conditions at Rikers resulted in Ballard’s tragic death, a distraught and homeless United States Army veteran named Jerome Murdough suffocated to death in a cell that was heated at more than 101°.
Bradley Ballard was a native of Houston, Texas, and like many others who struggle with mental illness, didn’t outwardly exhibit behavior considered out of the ordinary until he reached adulthood. According to his mother and stepfather, who he was close to, Ballard was officially diagnosed with schizophrenia sometime in his 20’s. He was also a diabetic.
Ballard was not content with his life in Texas it appears; so he headed North to the Big Apple. In New York City he was able to secure for himself steady employment, working as a fry cook at a restaurant. Unfortunately things took a dramatic turn for the worse when, in 2004, he was accused of “assaulting a receptionist [working at] a New York law firm.” For this he was locked away in a cage for a total of six years. Even after enduring these six years of harsh and excessive punishment, Ballard still was not free. He was placed on parole and had to basically submit to the jurisdiction of a parole officer. It never appears to have occurred to the court (or it did and they just didn’t care) that the outrageous sentence meted out against him, as well as the continued stigma automatically attached to him because of it, made it all but impossible for Ballard to be able to pay the court costs and fines imposed on him, secure steady employment/ income, or reintegrate into to society in any other meaningful way. The cards were systematically stacked against him. The system set him up to fail, just as it has and continues to do to every other person unfortunate enough to be snatched up in this intricately-spun web known as the criminal “justice” system. Considering the obstacles Ballard was facing, it’s no wonder that he eventually made his way back down to Houston, Texas where at least he was closer near his family.
Then came an incident in June, 2013 in which Ballard was arrested for allegedly “punching and exposing himself to a bus driver.” The cops who arrested him soon discovered that Ballard was still, after all this time, on parole for the incident involving a receptionist back in 2004. The fact that he had returned to Houston was in clear violation of his parole, and so he would be made to suffer for failing to notify his parole officer that he’d left New York.
After being extradited back to New York, Bradley Ballard was shuffled through many different units, first through the jail system, then through the psychiatric unit, and finally arriving as a patient in Rikers Island’s “mental observation unit”. It was here where staff members charged with observing the mentally ill decided that they were going to teach Ballard a lesson. After Ballard allegedly “stared for hours at a female officer, rolled up his shirt to look like a penis and thrust it toward her“, it was time to take action. Apparently exposing someone to a fake cloth-made penis is what counts for sexual assault these days, at least as far as Rikers Island employees are concerned (though I’m willing to bet the inmates would beg to differ). Despite no reported injuries, the staff apparently felt so terrorized by this “shirt [rolled up] to look like a penis” that they thought it would be best for Ballard to be locked up alone in his cell for a week while they simultaneously deprived him of his much-needed medication. Given that they were working in the “mental observation unit”, one wonders how the staff workers could not have known that this could potentially result in severe deterioration of the inmate’s mental stability.
After a day of what was basically solitary confinement, Ballard intentionally flooded his room’s combined sink and toilet. In response all water was shut off in his cell. When, five days later, an inmate tasked with delivering food to his cell, he quickly covered his nose and backed away after catching whiff of a horrendous odor. A security camera caught three Rikers officers on video reacting in much the same manner, covering their noses in disgust and quickly running out of the room. On the following day, September 11th – an entire week after being confined to the cell – medical staffers finally entered into the foul-smelling cell to discover Bradley Ballard lying entirely naked across the floor, covered in his own feces. Tied tightly around his genitals was a rubber band, which had caused his genitals to swell up and become “badly infected.” Hours later, after his unconscious body was rushed to Elm Hurst Hospital, Ballard was pronounced dead at the age of thirty-nine.
When Bradley’s mother, Beverley Ann Griffin, received the news that her son had died in such egregious conditions, her immediate reaction was one of grief and bewilderment over how people could be so viciously cruel. “He didn’t have to leave the world like that. They could have put him in a mental hospital, got him some treatment… He was a caring young man. He was a good-hearted person, and he didn’t have to die the way he died. How can a human being do to another human being what they did to him?” Sadly, Mrs. Griffin would not be the last mother to lose a loved one to the monster that is Rikers Island, nor are there any signs that the death toll will cease any time soon. It was only a month ago today that an inmate named Rodney Lightner collapsed under unusual circumstances. Meanwhile jail bosses seem be fueling more violence among inmates in a desperate attempt to thwart Mayor Bill De Blazio’s efforts to curb New York’s addiction to solitary confinement. (It wouldn’t be the first time Guards played an active role in encouraging inmates to attack one another.) A representative of the nation’s top union representing jail bosses, Sidney Schwartzbaum, contends that a purported spike in inmate-on-inmate violence can be attributed directly to new policies meant to limit the unrestrained usage of solitary confinement. He fails to note, however, that solitary confinement is most commonly utilized as a tool against prisoners who don’t bend to the every demand, no matter how degrading, of their captors. Rarely is it used to punish inmates who hurt other inmates.
As much as jail bosses and staff would like us to all focus on the violence of certain inmates, the truth is that inmates are in a sense only reacting to being under the constant heel of a system that not only allows violence to occur, but in fact sanctions it. Where was the “long arm of justice” when it was needed to protect Rikers inmate Ronald “Knowledge” Spears, whose death in 2012 was ruled a homicide? Officers and medical personnel at Rikers Facility intentionally withheld the necessary treatment Ronald required for his kidney disease. Because he refused to remain silent about this mistreatment, officers responded by attacking him, intending to silence him once and for all. The autopsy listed his cause of death as “hypertensive cardiovascular disease, with blunt-force trauma [to the head, torso and arms] as a contributing factor.” In the end not a single officer was charged for what in any just society would been classified as murder in the first degree. But we don’t live in a just society, and officers of the law could care less about protecting those of us who aren’t in positions of power. You don’t need to take my word for it. Just listen to the words of Norman Seabrook, the president of the Corrections Officers Union, who had this to say regarding the murder of Ronald Spears at the hands of Rikers Island officers:
“Correction officers in this case did everything they were supposed to do.”
There you have it; straight from the horse’s (or should I say pig’s) mouth.
UPDATE: Former Rikers Island guard Brian Coll was convicted in Dec. 2015 for being primarily responsible for the death of Ronald Spears. Thank you to a peeved-off reader in the comment section for pointing this out to me.