The Suicide of Mr. A

A Mentally Ill Inmate Slips Through the Cracks—Into the Path of a Subway Train

On Thursday, October 2, Atkinson testified before the grand jury, who declined to indict him, and was released directly from the Queens courthouse sometime between 9 p.m. and midnight. Because of further miscommunication between the Rikers referral unit and Legal Aid, he left without his medications, which were waiting for him in a Manhattan office.

"I was in Muslim service when I got the message that Nate had beat the case at the grand jury," said Andrew Smith. "I saw him that day. I gave him about $30. I didn't ask him about his time in jail—I figured he would talk about it in his own time. He was talking about a job opportunity he had heard about from a corrections officer. He was happy to be out. But he didn't seem the same. Mostly, when I talk to my brothers, we'll be buggin' out and laughing, but he was just talking about how 'This isn't working for me. I have to get a job.' And he had lost weight. He was a big dude, and the weight had just disappeared from him." Andrew Smith was the last family member to see Atkinson alive.

Atkinson went to live with his fiancée, Kia, who now uses the name Atkinson, at a cousin's home in Queens. (Kia declined through a relative to talk to the Voice.) He left two messages on his Legal Aid lawyer's cell phone on October 6. By the time she returned the calls, it was too late.

George Nathaniel Atkinson was arrested after he called a suicide hotline threatening to shoot himself.
photo: Shiho Fukada
George Nathaniel Atkinson was arrested after he called a suicide hotline threatening to shoot himself.

His family is still adjusting to the shock of Nathaniel Atkinson's death. His mother can't speak about him for more than a few minutes without dissolving into tears. "She's devastated," says her husband, Sam McCorvey. "She's just in a daze."

The city's statement to the Voice about Atkinson's death offers more defensiveness than hope. "While the services required by the Settlement Agreement will undoubtedly be helpful to many Class Members, they cannot ensure positive results in all instances," Dantowitz wrote. "Thus, while Mr. A's death is tragic, it is completely unjustified and speculative to blame the city for this unfortunate occurrence. . . . We take the observations and recommendations made in the Special Report very seriously, and DOH is carefully considering what steps may be taken to improve its procedures so it can provide the best possible services to Class Members in the most effective manner. While we have had discussions concerning this Report and the Compliance Monitors' Second Quarterly Report with plaintiff's counsel, those discussions are confidential, and any comment on them would be a serious breach of professional ethics."

Barr is hardly satisfied. "There's virtually nothing nice to say about the city's actions," she says. "It's not at all clear to me how they're going to change to be in compliance." Only a few weeks after the special report, the December 17 quarterly report on Brad H. identified 24 separate problems with discharge planning, including coordination, communication, and even basic understanding of definitions and procedures. For example, one-third of the inmates eligible for discharge help are recorded as refusing care because of "inadequate attempts" by mental health staff members to identify themselves and the services they offer. "A lot of our clients don't understand that discharge planners don't work for corrections," says Anderson. "Or they'll say, 'No, I don't need your help, my lawyer's doing it.' " Just 42 percent of the 5,416 eligible inmates released between June 3 and November 15 received a Medicaid prescreening. And only 4 percent of inmates who did participate in the planning had a scheduled appointment on the day of release.

According to Barr, the plaintiffs are running out of options, short of a contempt motion, to compel the city to follow the agreement. "I spent a lot of time feeling really guilty about Mr. A's death—thinking maybe if we'd paid a little more attention it might not have happened," she says. "I didn't get the sense from the city that they're staying up nights.

"Frankly, I think Mr. A's family should file their own suit against the city," Barr continues. Anderson concurs: "Speaking personally, if this was my family member, I would sue. You have a guy coming into the system who has made, by any standards, a serious suicidal gesture—from a mental health point of view, guns, ropes, gas, those are the ones you have to take seriously. And to my knowledge really nothing was done for this guy."

Nathaniel Atkinson's family has already spoken to a lawyer about making a case. "I know for a fact that Nay-Nay loved life too much to hurt himself," says his mother. "If they hadn't given my child that medication this never would have happened." Adds his brother Andrew Smith, "I feel that the doctors should do their jobs. If they know that someone's suicidal, that person should be getting medication and attending groups. Before they released him they should have made sure he had everything he needed. You don't throw a baby to the wolves—why would they drug somebody up and then send them out on the street?"

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