- The 27-year-old Nepal native who was in the jail for just a week was homeless and mentally sick.
A week after his death at Rikers Island, the family and friends of Manish Kunwar are trying to come to terms with the “mysterious” causes that killed their friend, and the appalling conditions at New York City’s largest jail. Kunwar, a 27-year-old native of Nepal, died last week, marking the ninth death in New York City Department of Correction custody this year. He was found unresponsive in his cell and declared dead at 6:20 a.m. on Oct. 5, according to a statement from the Corrections Department.
Kunwar was arraigned on Sept. 27, and has been in custody at Rikers for just seven days, his attorney Jane Remler of the Legal Aid Society, told the Gothamist. He was extradited from Delaware to face two bail-jumping charges, one charge of robbery and one charge of grand larceny. Before that, he had spent five months in a psychiatric facility in Baltimore. News reports describe him as being homeless and mentally ill.
In a statement, the Legal Aid Society said Kunwar’s case highlights the harm of incarceration instead of support services. “If our client had access to the services he needed and stable housing, today’s tragedy could have been avoided,” the organization said. “The carceral system is no place for people struggling with mental or substance abuse issues, and all criminal legal system stakeholders must pursue alternatives that prioritize community-based resources over the confines of a cage.”
The New York Times reported that Kunwar died “a few hours before hours a federal official appointed to monitor Rikers issued his latest scathing report about the dangerous dysfunction that persists there.” The Times said the monitor, Steve J. Martin, wrote that the Rikers complex was “characterized by a pervasive, imminent risk of harm” to those in custody, and to jail employees and that the “alarming conditions” appeared to have deteriorated since August.
His death was followed by the suspension of a captain and an officer. DOC spokesman Frank Dwyer told the Daily News that their suspension “could suggest that correction staff were not doing rounds in Kunwar’s unit through the nights.” The incident remains under investigation, he added.
He moved to the U.S. from Nepal in 2016 after winning a diversity visa, his cousin Saru Ban of Texas told the New York Daily News. Diversity Visa is a program in which the U.S. makes 50,000 visas a year available in a lottery. Since then he “seems to have lived the life of a wanderer,” she said, adding that she last saw him in 2018 at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. “He told me he wanted to work hard and everything would be okay,” she said, adding that “he was a sweet person. Who later was mentally very sick.” However, “no matter who he was, he has the right to get the right care.”
According to the Gothamist, Kunwar was arrested initially in June 2022 “for robbery in Queens and accused of taking $1,200 from a man at knifepoint.” He did not show up for court and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He then did not appear for a subsequent court date. Citing sources, the Gothamist report said “he had a relapse of a substance abuse condition and wound up in a Baltimore psychiatric facility for five months and then somehow in Delaware..” There, he called 911 “because he was suicidal, and authorities took him into custody.” He was then extradited to Queens and charged on Sept. 27 with robbery, bail jumping, and grand larceny charges. He was due back in court Thursday morning.
Friend Anup Thapaliya told The New York Daily News that he spoke to Kunwar for about 30 minutes by phone a day before he died. “He didn’t lose his life when he was on the street, but he dies in a protected facility,” he told Daily News. “It seems a little fishy to me,” added the hotel service manager in New Jersey. “Rikers has a really bad reputation. It looks very unnatural, very mysterious.” He told the paper that he met Kunwar “when he was already homeless about seven years ago.” Through a friend, he helped find Kunwar a room at a shelter in Atlantic City, N.J. It is not clear how he went to Baltimore and Delaware.
In an email sent to The Daily News, Kunwar’s sister Megha, who lives in Dubai, said she’s “heartbroken and angry about his unexpected death.” She wondered why her brother wasn’t treated by the prison authorities despite them knowing that he had a mental illness. “He had a right to live. They have no humanity.” During their last conversation about a month ago, she said her brother told her that he “can’t live without medication for his mental problems,” she wrote in an email to The Daily News.
(Top photo, courtesy of the Department of Correction. Inset, a still from the film “Shawshank Redemption.”)