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Suicide watch ignored, Rikers Island inmate dies

NEW YORK -- A mentally ill inmate who apparently hanged himself on New Year's Day in a Rikers Island jail cell was supposed to be placed on suicide watch, but it wasn't implemented, two city officials told The Associated Press on Friday.

A jail psychiatrist who saw Fabian Cruz on Wednesday at a clinic ordered that Cruz be transferred to a special observation unit in a different Rikers facility where he'd be placed under constant watch, but Cruz told a guard at the clinic he didn't want to go and he was transferred back to his jail cell, the officials said.

Letting Cruz go back to his cell was a violation of Department of Correction protocol because inmates don't get to decide where they're housed, said one of the officials, who both spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the ongoing investigation into what happened.

The guard also was supposed to contact a supervising captain after the suicide watch was ordered but didn't, the official said.

Cruz, 35, was discovered Thursday evening and was pronounced dead by a jail doctor. The correction officer at the clinic has been placed on modified duty.

In October, city officials announced they'd secured a $400,000 federal grant to review suicides and other self-harm in jails to identify systemic breakdowns that cause them and to prevent more. That announcement followed a June report by the AP that found, based on city and state investigative documents, that in nine of the 11 inmate suicides since 2009 established protocols designed to prevent vulnerable inmates form hurting themselves weren't followed.

Autopsy results are pending in Cruz's case, but the officials said his death appeared to be suicide by hanging. A spokeswoman for the medical examiner's office said the cause and manner of his death hadn't been determined.

A Department of Correction spokesman said only that Cruz's death in the Robert N. Davoren Center was being investigated as a possible suicide.

Cruz had pleaded guilty to burglary and criminal sexual act for abusing his girlfriend's teenage daughter starting when she was 14 years old between November 2009 and October 2012, court records show. He was awaiting sentencing Jan. 15 to five years in prison upstate and would have had to register as a sex offender, prosecutors said.

A message left with Cruz's attorney wasn't immediately returned.

The head of the powerful city correction officers' union, Norman Seabrook, said the guard had been on the job for three years and had never worked with mentally ill inmates.

"She'll be the scapegoat for management on this, and that's unfair," Seabrook said.

The city's jail system has come under increased scrutiny in the past year since the AP first reported the deaths of two seriously mentally ill inmates at Rikers - one who died of hyperthermia in a sweltering jail cell and another who sexually mutilated himself while locked up alone for seven straight days.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, serving his first term, has vowed reforms. Last month, federal prosecutors investigating guard brutality at Rikers against teenage inmates joined a federal lawsuit alleging widespread violence against inmates by guards throughout Rikers to speed up the pace of those reforms.

Advocates and former health officials have long said inmate suicides are a result of miscommunication and tension between the two agencies responsible for inmates: health officials who evaluate inmate health care and jail guards who are responsible for their control.

Last month, a Rikers Island guard was convicted of a civil rights charge after a jury concluded he ignored the pleas of a dying inmate who had swallowed a toxic soap ball.

Terrence Pendergrass shook his head repeatedly as the verdict was announced Wednesday in Manhattan federal court. Pendergrass was charged in the death of 25-year-old Jason Echevarria, who had bipolar disorder and was being held on a burglary charge, CBS New York reported.

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