Press Release

IACHR Expresses Concern over Detention Conditions at Rikers Island Prison, United States, a year after the tragic death of an inmate*

September 18, 2014

Washington, D.C. – The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) deeply regrets the death in September of 2013 of a person with mental disabilities who was deprived of his liberty at the Rikers Island prison complex in New York City in the United States. On the anniversary of this death, the IACHR urges the State to take the necessary to duly investigate these facts and prevent their recurrence.

According to publicly known information, Bradley Ballard, 39 years of age, died on September 10, 2013 presumably as a result of a lack of adequate medical attention, in a cell for persons with mental disabilities at the Rikers Island prison complex in New York. Bradley Ballard, who suffered from diabetes and was mentally disabled, was found naked in his cell, covered in his own excrement and vomit, with his testicles tied with an elastic band, which resulted in ischemia owing to the absence of blood circulation. He was later taken to the Elmhurst Hospital Center, where he was declared dead.

The Inter-American Commission notes with concern that this death occurred in a context in which numerous public complaints have been made by different sectors concerning the prison conditions for persons with mental disabilities at the Rikers Island prison complex. Moreover, reports have been made about the disproportionate use of force against inmates by the security personnel at Rikers Island, who are not punished for their actions. In this regard, the Inter-American Commission underscores the report transmitted by the United States Department of Justice to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on August 4 this year.

The IACHR stresses that the authorities responsible for the detention of persons deprived of liberty must make all necessary efforts to protect the life and personal integrity of said persons and prevent the occurrence of acts that jeopardize their rights, in particular in cases of vulnerable individuals. As concerns persons with mental disabilities who are deprived of liberty, the Inter-American Commission has emphasized the special measures States should adopt to meet their particular health needs. For its part, the Inter-American Court has highlighted the positive obligation of States to provide the conditions necessary for institutionalized persons with this condition to live a decent life. These standards are all the more relevant since persons with mental disabilities are the population group most likely to become involved in criminal proceedings, either as victims or accused. This is due to the multiple obstacles they face in effectively exercising their right to access justice.

Likewise, the IACHR recalls that the States have the obligation to investigate on their own any deaths of persons that occur in places in which persons are deprived of liberty. The fact that an event is initially characterized as a death from disease does not exempt the competent authorities from launching a serious and impartial investigation in which all logical lines of inquiry are pursued.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

* This is a corrected version of the press release originally issued. The correction was made on the same date that it was issued.

No. 104/14