NEW YORK (AP) — A homeless man who frequently was arrested and sent to jail, often on drug-related charges, was found dead of a suspected overdose inside the Rikers Island jail complex Wednesday, according to an internal memo and a city official.
Richard Gonzalez was being held on misdemeanor criminal trespass and drug possession charges when he was discovered just before 9 a.m. on his side with vomit around his mouth in a holding pen, the official told The Associated Press. The official wasn't permitted to discuss an ongoing investigation and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Gonzalez, 45, has been arrested 26 times since 1986, often on drug-related charges such as criminal possession of a controlled substance or stolen property, according to police records. His last arrest Tuesday was his fifth this year, the records show.
He had a history of benzodiazepine and opioid use, the official said.
Gonzalez was admitted to Rikers shortly after midnight Tuesday following his arrest in Queens, the official said. He had not yet had a medical screening, which by law all inmates must receive within 24 hours of being admitted.
Investigators are interviewing eight to 10 inmates who were inside the holding pen with Gonzalez and are looking into how he may have obtained drugs in the chaotic intake area at the 2,300-bed Anna M. Kross Center, the official said.
The medical examiner will determine how he died. A jails spokeswoman said officials are investigating the case.
"He didn't seem to have any sort of symptoms or a disposition of having an illness that would attack him suddenly," said Anthony Posada, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society who represented Gonzalez at his arraignment Tuesday. "He appeared like he was making it through, and I was going to see him Friday."
Prosecutors said Gonzalez was seen entering a vacant home with a backpack full of burglary tools when he was arrested, but Posada said Gonzalez told him he had been staying at the house for two months. A judge set his bail at $4,000.
Attempts to reach Gonzalez's family members were unsuccessful.
Last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $130 million effort to better address the high volume of people with mental and behavioral health problems who cycle in and out of a roughly 10,000-inmate city jail system. More than 470 of those people, dubbed "frequent fliers" because they're so often arrested, were jailed at least 18 times from 2008 to 2014, a health department study found. Together, this group accounted for 300,000 days in jail — and 99 percent of them had a substance abuse problem, according to the study.
A task force that studied how the criminal justice system handles such inmates recommended diverting low-level offenders to treatment instead of jail when possible. And in Manhattan, specially trained jail health officials now screen defendants at the courthouses before they're sent to Rikers to identify possible health risks.