Who Killed Robert Konopka?

His psychotic Rikers cellmate—or the prison system itself?

As Smart stood outside the cell-turned-crime-scene, the suicide prevention aide asked him why he did it. Smart's reply: "He got on my nerves, man."

Suzanne Konopka's lawsuit—filed in State Supreme Court in the Bronx in 2002—asserts that city agencies "were negligent, reckless, and careless in failing to protect" her husband. She also claims that corrections officers attempted "a cover-up of the facts, circumstances, and events" to protect Curreri, who was new on the job, from getting fired. One Department of Correction investigation found that "there was no written policy regarding the housing of mental observation inmates in multi-occupant cells." It adds: "Mental health staff makes a clinical decision on what inmates should be domiciled together providing the inmate does not exhibit aggressive or paranoid behavior." But it's clear that Smart crossed that threshold. Hence the conclusion of one internal document: "It is apparent at this time that the procedures outlined in [departmental policy] were not followed by the facility." The report mentions disciplinary charges against an officer who handled the intake of new inmates, but there's no indication of the punishment. Two months after the murder, correction officials told their oversight body, the Board of Correction, that the two-man cells were being discontinued.

Robert Konopka and his two daughters, Teresa (left) and Felicia, in a 1998 family photograph
photo: Courtesy Susan Konopka
Robert Konopka and his two daughters, Teresa (left) and Felicia, in a 1998 family photograph

The city's policy shift happened too late to help Robert Konopka, and despite evidence of the risks involved, the state system hasn't changed at all. When George Pataki became governor in 1995, only a small portion of the state's maximum-security cells were two-man cells. But Pataki wanted to build more prisons and save money, so he adopted a model of two-man cells, which other states also used. Prison advocates protested. "When a jail or a prison double-cells, they increase the risk that one or both of the inmates will be injured in an assault or a fight," Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association, a nonprofit organization that inspects prisons, says. "It's a hazardous condition of confinement."

Although they house only a fraction of the 63,000 inmates now under state control, there are double-occupancy cells throughout the state prison system. The state says it has a detailed screening process to determine who gets in those cells, weeding out likely aggressors or victims. Nine medium-security prisons have "S-Blocks" of 100 two-man cells each. These are used to house inmates who cause disciplinary problems, so their occupants are locked in the cells 23 hours a day. The same lock-in rules apply to virtually all the cells at the maximum- security Upstate Correctional Facility in Franklin County, which has 590 two-man units. The regulations are looser at maximum-security Five Points Correctional Facility in Seneca County, but most of the 750 cells there are double-occupancy as well. And at 15 other mostly maximum-security prisons in the state—places like Attica, Downstate, and Sing Sing—there are a total of 891 double-occupancy cells.

A group of state inmates filed a federal lawsuit over the double-occupancy practice 11 years ago. In a ruling this June, District Judge Gerard Lynch wrote: "As a matter of logic, it certainly must be true that inmates placed in a double cell are subjected to a higher risk of assault than inmates placed in a single cell." But Lynch dismissed the inmates' suit, determining that those risks—and the general discomfort of sharing a small cell with another person—weren't substantial enough to violate the Eighth Amendment. Civil liberties lawyers agree that double-occupancy cells aren't unconstitutional on their face, as long as the state is careful in screening who gets into them. On two occasions, however, prisoners in New York State double-occupancy cells have murdered their cellmates.

Come January, Eliot Spitzer is likely to take control of state prisons. Calls to his campaign spokesman, asking for details about Spitzer's corrections policy in general and feelings about two-man cells in particular, were not returned.

Debbie Ngai and her dog have moved away from McDivitt Avenue; she could not be located for this article. Derrick Smart is now serving a life term in Attica for his grandmother's murder and the manslaughter of Konopka.

Suzanne Konopka, who still lives with her daughters in the house she shared with her husband, isn't sure how much her daugh- ters know about the manner of their father's demise. His absence is felt in different ways. "Felicia wants to be a doctor. His knowledge would have helped her," she says. "Teresa, the other kids have their dads at the games. He's not there." The kids have to call their uncle for help with homework. Suzanne has lost weight without her husband's cooking. Konopka's dad died soon after his son, perhaps burdened by the grief of such an unlikely end. And the condition of the garden at 102 McDivitt betrays Robert's absence. "I kind of do what I can," Suzanne says. "I got a letter from the condo association saying there's weeds."

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