Black man faced ‘horrible conditions’ before dying at Rikers, report finds

Thomas Braunson, a 35-year-old new father, is one of three men to die at the notorious New York jail since April

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Thomas Earl Braunson III, a 35-year-old new father, had been jailed and held in “horrible conditions” when he died behind bars on Rikers Island in April.

Braunson was arrested for a parole violation related to a shoplifting case when he was found dead in his cell at the Eric M. Taylor Center on the morning of April 19. His cause of death remains unclear. He is the first of three men to die while in Correction Department custody since April, as reported by THE CITY.

According to the city’s jail oversight board, many of the men housed were often not provided food and regular exercise. The facility was also found to have “severe staffing and supplies issues” with many detainees “missing sheets and blankets,” per the initial review obtained by THE CITY.

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Thomas Earl Braunson III died on Rikers Island on April 19. (Braunson family)

“We discovered horrible conditions in the EMTC intake pens, where Mr. Braunson spent several days before his death,” the report said.

Braunson was on parole related to a 2018 case of stolen property, for which he was sentenced to two to four years in prison. Per the report, he was arrested in Dec. 2020 for shoplifting in New Jersey and arrested again in April, when there was a previous warrant for his arrest for allegedly failing to report to his parole officer and changing his approved address.

He was extradited to Rikers to await an administrative hearing on his case. The morning before his death, a fellow detainee told the Board of Correction death review team that Braunson “wasn’t feeling well.” 

After he died, “the men on the unit had to carry out his bloody mattress without gloves or equipment,” according to the report.

Braunson was alleged to be ‘dope sick,’ as were many of the men in intake with him upon his arrival to Rikers.

“Six people were dope-sick and throwing up at various points,” the detainee said.

During their last phone conversation, Braunson’s mother told him she loved him.

“He said, ‘I love you more,’” Sharon Gross-Gill recalled.

“The next phone call I get from Rikers Island is from a chaplain,” she said. “It’s still very hard to believe.”

The city’s Medical Examiner’s Office has not determined Braunson’s cause of death. 

Braunson’s family is seeking financial compensation for injury and damages, accusing correction officials of being “careless, reckless, and negligent” while he was in their care.

In the family’s notice of claim filed last month, they said jail staffers failed to screen Braunson and identify “symptoms of drug intoxication and withdrawal.”

Three months before Braunson’s death, his high school sweetheart, Trisha Alam, gave birth to their daughter, Vinessa.

“His world was changed,” says an obituary posted online by Bailey’s Funeral Home. “Vinessa became the focus of all he said and did.”

“He was going to come home and help with the baby,” Alam told THE CITY. “It’s just devastation. We just want to know what happened.”

Rikers Island theGrio.com
People walk by a sign at the entrance to Rikers Island on March 31, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Less than two weeks after Braunson’s death, 45-year-old Richard Blake, also detained for violating parole, was found dead after telling staff inside the Otis Bantum Correctional Center that he was sick.

On June 10, inmate Jose Mejia Martinez was found dead inside Rikers’ George Motchan Detention Center. He too was locked up on a parole violation for allegedly stealing beer.

Lawmakers aim to overhaul New York’s parole system with the Less Is More Act, which aims to keep parolees out of jail after being busted for low-level offenses or technical violations, according to the report. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has yet to sign the bill into law.

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