By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
On the evening of October 6, 2003, George Nathaniel Atkinson, 35, walked his fiancée, Kia Gayles, to the Archer Avenue/Parsons subway station, at the very end of the E, J, and Z lines in deep eastern Queens. Then he leapt in front of her train. He had been released from the Queens County courthouse three days before, after a month in jail psychiatric wards.
The suicide went largely unremarked in the wider world. The city has disavowed any responsibility for his death. But a special report by court-appointed investigators obtained last month by the Voicetells a different story. After settling a drawn-out class action suit one year ago, New York City is under court order to protect mentally ill prisoners. Atkinson was being treated for severe depression, and the people caring for him in jail were obligated to take several steps to smooth his transition into ordinary life and ensure that his treatment continuedsteps that didn't happen, with the worst possible result.
Atkinson, called Nathaniel, Nate, or Nay-Nay by his family, was "a very strong person," says his mother, Deborah Smith. "We all looked at him as a strong individual," says his older brother Claxton, 37. "We would never contemplate him doing anything like this. We just can't believe it."
The tallest and strongest of his four brothers, Atkinson had served in the army and last worked at a Radio Shack. He loved baking pies and cakes for family gatherings, and had dreams of attending culinary school like Claxton. Recently, he had been reading the Koran with thoughts of becoming a practicing Muslim like his closest brother, Andrew Smith. Just two years apart, the pair liked to go dancing at the Lenox Lounge or the Tunnel, take in an action movie, play basketball at the 118th Street courts, or dine out at BBQ. "Anytime he needed me, he had my cell number," Andrew says. "He's always been there for me anytime I needed help." To his family's knowledge, Atkinson had never had any psychological problems, though he was upset at times in the last year about trouble finding work. "He was outgoing, giving," says Andrew Smith. "He always helped people. He was joyful."
Nevertheless, according to the investigators' report, on August 31, Atkinson called a suicide hotline. He stayed on the line for over 90 minutes, saying he was suicidal and had access to a gun. The hotline staffers sent the police, who arrested him for possession of his would-be suicide weaponstandard procedure for emotionally disturbed people when a gun is present, according to Mary Beth Anderson, director of the New York Legal Aid Society's Mental Illness and Chemical Addiction Project. "I don't think they should do that, but obviously it happens," she says.
Atkinson was taken first to the emergency room of Queens Hospital Center in Jamaica, and then to the Kings County Hospital Prison Ward in Brooklyn. There, he was diagnosed with major depression made worse by cocaine and marijuana, saw a psychotherapist, and got prescriptions for the antidepressant Zoloft and the mood stabilizer Depakote. While at Kings County he was in touch with his family, who were trying to raise bail. "He called me and said he wanted to get out," says Andrew. "He sounded stressed. He said he didn't want to take the medication, that it made him tired, like a zombie."
After 18 days he was transferred from Brooklyn to the Rikers Island mental health center, where he was placed on suicide watch for four days and seen by psychologists and his Legal Aid attorney. On September 28, Atkinson called from jail to wish Claxton a happy birthday.
It was Heather Barr, a lawyer at the nonprofit Urban Justice Center, who first requested an investigation into Atkinson's death. In 1999, fresh out of law school, Barr filed Brad H. v. Giuliani along with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. The class action suit challenged the city's practice of releasing mentally ill peopleoften delusional, homeless, and without their medicationsfrom Rikers Island to Queens Plaza between 2 and 6 a.m. with $1.50 in cash and a two-fare Metrocard. (This remains the policy for the general jail population.) The suit sought a "discharge planning" process similar to the one for patients leaving a psychiatric bed at a county hospital. It asked for a caseworker to find them a place in the crowded housing and shelter system, give them prescriptions and a way to fill them, and oversee their transition from jail.
"When I approached Debevoise and Plimpton, a big corporate law firm who ended up taking this on as a pro bono case," says Barr, "I said it would be a really small, tidy lawsuit. We weren't asking for new services to be funded, just for the city to obey the mental hygiene law and the state constitution." Instead, the city fought the suit for four years, with "screaming and shouting and pounding on the tables." At one point in 2001, Barr tried to have Giuliani imprisoned for contempt of court. The 11th-hour State Supreme Court settlement, signed January 8, 2003, spelled out the city's new responsibilities toward the 25,000 "seriously and persistently mentally ill" people released from New York City jails each year.