On the same day Mayor Bill de Blasio, who’s pledged to close Riker’s Island, coasted to second term, a convicted former lawmaker prepared to sue the city for mistreating him while he was a prisoner there this summer.
Former Queens Councilman Ruben Wills has shuttled between prison facilities after a jury found him guilty of stealing $33,000 in campaign funds and grant money in July. He was immediately expelled from the Council as a Queens criminal court judge handed down a two to six year sentence.
Now, the former pol tells The Daily Beast that his interactions with guards and nurses during his four days on Riker’s Island left him in searing pain and confined to a wheelchair, and this week he filed a notice of claim with the city controller’s office — reported on here for the first time — that he intends to sue for $10 million in damages.
“Mr. Wills felt compelled to sue the city of New York for the sole purpose of holding the city Department of Corrections accountable for its well-documented and repeat failure to provide the appropriate level of medical care for inmates in their custody,” said his attorney, Natraj Bhushan.
A spokesman for the city law department said he was not aware of the notice and that city attorneys would review it when they get it. A spokesman for Health and Hospitals Corporation, which runs medical operations at Rikers, said patient confidentiality precludes HHC from sharing any information about patients in their care.
Wills’s legal troubles began in May 2014, when State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman indicted him on multiple fraud and grand larceny charges for spending a state grant earmarked for a Queens charity at two department stores. Nine months later, he was arrested again on separate felony charges for failing to disclose financial dealings on city Conflict of Interest Board filings.
Wills refused a plea deal and vowed to fight the charges in court, but suffered a setback with a botched medical procedure in January 2016 that put him in severe discomfort and forced him to miss 69 City Council meetings over six months. When Wills’s first trial occurred a year later, his physician sent his medical records to the court and Queens Supreme Court Judge Ira Margulis allowed him to sit on a chair with a soft surface and take several breaks throughout the 11-day proceedings.
When Wills returned to court on August for his second trial, Margulis ordered him to “be housed at [North Infirmary Command] on Rikers” for “medical and psychological attention.”
In an exclusive interview with the Daily Beast, Wills said that corrections employees misplaced his medical records, wouldn’t give him his prescribed medicines for days, and refused to take him to the infirmary for nearly three days — causing him to suffer from so much pain that he couldn’t walk on his own power.
His health worsened almost as soon corrections officers picked him up from the courthouse. Instead of taking him directly to infirmary as the judge recommended, guards transported him to Rikers in a bus, transferred him to a van that had no seats, and then drove him to Vernon Bain Center, a floating jail barge in the Bronx.
“The van ride wasn’t smooth, it jostled around. I remember being in a lot of pain,” Wills recounted from the Marcy Correctional Facility outside of Utica, where he is currently held. “They woke me up. I guess I passed out. I tried to move and stand up but I was in a lot of pain and then I slumped back down.”
Wills had to be hauled out of the van on a gurney. A guard said he was going to receive medical attention as officers put Wills into a cell at around 5:30 pm that day. But a doctor at Bain told Wills they couldn’t find his medical records and wouldn’t be able to give him the painkillers he required.
“I was on Percocet and OxyContin for my nerves but all they could give me was Tylenol 3 which gave me sickness,” Wills said. He took the Tylenol anyway.
Wills told a Corrections sergeant, “I think you are supposed to take me to the infirmary.” Wills says he saw that sergeant sign a form allowing him to go to the infirmary for an emergency and that he was promised a van would pick him up “in an hour or two.” But Wills ended up stayed in his cell in the Bronx until 8:30 the next morning.
A corrections spokesman confirmed that Wills requested to go into a clinic after his initial physical and mental health examination but medical staff determined “it was appropriate to place this individual in a different facility.”
“Department of Corrections and Correctional Health Services work closely to ensure people in our custody are provided quality health care,” said Corrections spokesman Peter Thorne. “Inmates can request to go to the clinic for health issues at any time, which can result in placement in different housing to meet their health needs.”
Separately, a corrections spokeswoman said the department never received any orders from Queens criminal court concerning Wills’s condition or his placement in the infirmary.
When guards finally arrived to transport him the next morning, Willis couldn’t walk to the van. So they shackled him and had him lay on the floor of the vehicle.
“The guards were really nasty. They kept saying, ‘You got to get up and walk’ but I said I was in a lot of pain,” Wills said. “They got a wheelchair for me and rolled me and put me in the same van that they transported me. I said, ‘Don’t put me back in the van, that’s what caused me problems before.’
He thought he would now be going to the medical building, but instead ended up at the George R. Vierno Center, a large jail facility also known as the Beacon. Once the van dropped him there the guards gave him crutches and more Tylenol 3.
His family visited the next day and guards brought him to the visiting area on a gurney. Wills’s appearance so alarmed his wife she and several community activists called City Hall to complain about his treatment immediately after her visit, multiple sources said.
Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams and Bronx Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson visited Wills in Rikers that weekend and alerted the mayor’s office about his condition, according to multiple sources. Both members did not return phone calls.
Queens activist Erica Ford also saw Wills and was shocked at his condition.
“They brought him out to see us in a wheelchair. He looked like he lost 20 to 30 pounds,” Ford said. “You could see he was visibly in pain and it was hard for him to sit up let alone walk."
“Anybody who looked at him could tell there was no way he could fake this,” she added. “He looked very ill.”
By 9 p.m. that night, about 10 guards including a deputy warden surrounded Wills’s cell and told him it was time to go to the infirmary, Wills said.
“They said, ‘You’re making phone calls telling people they’re not taking care of me. They said the mayor’s office is calling now,’” Wills said.
“So I said, ‘I don’t know which phone calls you’re talking about but I only called one person a little while ago; there’s no way all of this is happening that fast.’”
Wills arrived at the medical infirmary between 1 and 2 am and crept into a hospital bed. When he woke up, medical workers from Health and Hospitals Corporation were at his bedside.
Wills said he was relieved to receive medical attention but the conditions inside the infirmary disturbed him.
“There were three elderly gentlemen who were defecating on themselves and the nurses were ignoring them, so inmates took them into showers and cleaned them,” he said. “In showers, little worms would fall out of the walls, and people who needed insulin shots in the morning weren’t getting insulin until 10 pm at night. The nurses weren’t doing what they were supposed to do.”
A doctor prescribed painkillers and anti-inflammatory medication and physical therapy for the next three days, Wills said. “She said, ‘I don’t want you to be in a wheelchair. I’m worried legs would atrophy,” so she gave me Percocet for the evening,” he added.
But Wills’s relief was short-lived.
At 5 am the next morning, city corrections officers transferred him to Downstate Correctional Facility, a state prison intake center in Fishkill, NY.
Wills believes City Hall officials shipped him upstate so he wouldn’t be their problem anymore.
“I believe they started covering their own behind, they started making phone calls,” he said. "I was told somebody from mayor’s office called a couple times to check on me.”
A de Blasio spokeswoman said the mayor's office was "aware of the matter" but that no one at City Hall had “intervened or influenced the decision-making process in any way.”
De Blasio pledged in April to shut down Rikers by 2027 after civic and political leaders pressured him to end abuses in the city’s jail system.
Wills had been part of the chorus on the City Council calling on Rikers to close, though he also worked to keep juvenile detention facilities out of his district in Southeast Queens. His opposition to the jail complex has grown even stronger now that he experienced its horrors firsthand, friends say.
“It is an inhumane way to house people, even if they are incarcerated,” said a friend of the former pol.