By Andrea Pineda-Salgado
Stephan Khadu is among the 16 men who died in Rikers last year. Epicenter interviewed his mother Lezandre Khadu for four hours, and pieced together this account of Stephan’s final days. Asked about his death, city officials said they are aware of “conditions at Rikers.”
“Stephen Khadu was in our custody when he passed away on September 22, 2021. My deepest condolences go out to his loved ones,” says Louis A. Molina, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction. “We are working aggressively to improve the conditions at Rikers that began under previous administrations, and are committed to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of everyone who works and lives in our facilities.”
Lezandre Khadu had her son, Stephan, when she was 14 years old. She gave him the nickname “Pop” when he was a toddler, a moniker suggested by a best friend from childhood that just kind of stuck. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Khadu says he was a charismatic kid who would always charm his way into people’s hearts and more often than not, use that same charm to wiggle his way out of trouble.
Khadu recalls a memory from when her son was five years old. She says he would chat with older ladies and one of them, a stranger he had just met and charmed, asked to take him to the movies. As a middle schooler he would spend his summers in Rochester, New York, where he got to run around with his cousins and play paintball all day. A neighbor’s broken window curtailed the rambunctiousness of the game. As a teen he worked at a cafeteria where he once again won over the older ladies. One in particular would always make him food, and came to consider him her grandson.
When Stephan would occasionally get into trouble at school his mother did not embrace the “boys will be boys” mantra. Once, in seventh grade, he decided to skip class by hiding out in the bathroom. When Khadu was called into the school due to the infraction, she furiously hiked up five stories to chat with the principal. She wanted to make sure her son learned his lesson so she asked to use the loudspeaker.
“Yo, Stephan, you buggin’ bro,” she said. “Wherever you at, I’m here.”
As Khadu marched out of the office, she caught Stephan in his purple leather coat coming out of the bathroom. He tried to make up excuses, but she was not having it. She made sure he learned his lesson that day.
“I could hear you Stephan and you could hear me. The day that you cannot hear me, you got a problem and the day that I cannot hear you, I have a problem,” she would tell him. It was their way of reminding each other that wherever they were, they would have each other’s back.
Khadu reminded her son of their saying when her Pop was arrested. Stephan had been arrested three times prior to being sent to Rikers on what Khadu calls “minor charges” such as possession of marijuana, but was bailed out. Khadu never imagined her son would end up at Rikers. Little did she know that this final arrest was the beginning of the end.
Arrest leads to incarceration at Rikers
Stephan Khadu was arrested on Dec. 19, 2019, along with nine other men — allegedly members of the Brick Squad, a Brooklyn street gang. The state charged them in a 48-count indictment with conspiracy to commit murder, weapons possession, narcotics possession and other crimes. He was 22 years old.
He was sent to Rikers to await trial. After a few months, he was transferred to the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center. Nicknamed “The Boat,” the center is actually a barge used to hold overflow NYC Department of Correction inmates.
Khadu couldn’t understand why her son was being transferred, at first she thought he was in trouble. But Stephan said they had asked for volunteers to willingly go to The Boat.
“[I asked him] ‘Why would you want to go to The Boat?’ He was like. ‘Ma, I haven’t been outside. I have not seen outside since I went to jail,’’ Khadu says. “That knocked every cell and organ out of my body, but again, I couldn’t show what I was feeling.”
While Stephan wouldn’t go into detail about his day-to-day at Rikers, his mother sensed it was horrific. But she never imagined what would happen to him.
Khadu had heard the guards at Rikers were mistreating the inmates, but when he would call and she would ask her son about it he would try to calm her down.
“His exact words to me were ‘Ma, what is wrong with you? They are human beings too.”
Khadu recalls Stephan telling her about an encounter he had with one of the guards with whom he had a friendly relationship.
“‘He came up to me and said ‘Yo Stephan, I had no lunch today, do you have something for me?’ So I gave him a cake.’ I was like, what?” says Khadu.
“Ma, what do you mean?” said Stephan, “These people are people too, Ma.”
Khadu wondered about the conditions inmates at Rikers faced if even the guards were asking for food. She says she was worried for her son but stayed strong every time they spoke.
Khadu would often visit Stephan in jail, and sometimes the guards would give them extra time with each other. Then the pandemic hit, and they were only able to communicate via Zoom and phone calls.
Every time they talked about Stephan being in jail, Khadu recalled him joking, “I’m not in jail, what are you talking about, I’m in Miami, I’m about to get on a jet ski.”
“That’s what we would put in our heads, to block out everything,” Khadu says. When things got hard she would remind him of their saying.
A close call
Khadu would soon learn her son came close to death when she received a phone call on July 6, 2021.
Devin, also known as “Super,” a friend that Stephan had made at Rikers, called Khadu, which was later called a “breach of security,” to tell her that Stephan had five seizures and was at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx.
Super recounted to Khadu the events that took place prior to Stephan’s hospitalization. He was in charge of waking the inmates each morning and found Stephan bloody in his bed. Stephan thought he had bitten his tongue in his sleep. Coincidentally, Super’s mother had a history of epilepsy and told Stephan he likely had a seizure in his sleep.
As Super and Stephan talked, a small fire was started in a nearby cell. When officers came to put it out, Super pleaded with them to take Stephan to a medic because he had a seizure, but they didn’t believe him. Instead, he said, the guards sprayed him and Stephan with “cell buster,” a chemical pepper spray. As a result, Stephan experienced more seizures.
This soon turned into a chaotic scene as other inmates began shouting to the officers that Stephan needed help. Khadu says Super told her, the officers dragged Stephan, while he was still having seizures into a cell with no cameras, they still didn’t believe he was really having a seizure. Some inmates rushed in to help Stephan, including one who had studied to become a paramedic.
Khadu recalled Super telling her that while the rest of them tried to shield themselves from the pepper spray, Stephan lay on the floor, choking.
“[Super] said they didn’t care what happened to them at that moment,” Khadu says. “They were not going to move from Stephan because he was continually having seizures. They continued to spray the cell, telling them they’ll stop spraying it if they get up and move away from him. Finally, they got out.”
When one of the officers realized the seriousness of Stephan’s condition, he was rushed to the medical unit. Super said at this point Stephan’s eyes had rolled back and he was incoherent. He was then sent to the hospital.
Once Khadu learned her son had been moved to the hospital, she rushed to go see him, and despite her pleading was told to leave.
She recalls a confrontation in the hospital with a female police officer and hospital security, whose words stuck with her.
“Her exact words were, ‘For one, your son is property of the Department of Corrections and two, he’s 23 and I don’t have to tell you anything, he is not dead,’ ” Khadu recalls.
“I couldn’t believe what was going on. I had to walk out of the hospital, not knowing if Stephan was living or dead,” Khadu says.
Stephan spent a couple more days in the hospital before being sent back to his cell on The Boat. Weeks went by and he slowly began to recover, but the seizures had left him weak and he had difficulty moving around like he used to.
On Sept. 21, Stephan called his girlfriend and told her he wasn’t feeling well. The following day he had another seizure. Khadu was notified by the Department of Correction that her son had passed away and she needed to go to Lincoln Hospital to identify his body.
The medical examiner said Stephan died of natural causes from a meningitis infection. According to Khadu, the medical team took one hour and 41 minutes to arrive, were forced to carry Stephan out down several flights of stairs because the elevator wasn’t working, and then to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
“Was he scared? Did he know he was going to die? Did he know that?” Khadu wonders. “Like they said, ‘casualty 12.’ He didn’t die at war. He didn’t say I’m going to war and I’m gonna die for my country and I’m going to get a purple heart and I’m [coming] back. He didn’t do that. So stop calling him a casualty because he wasn’t a casualty of war.”
Khadu held a funeral for Stephan using donations from friends and family.
Rikers Island is out of control
A 2020 investigation revealed that 80 people have died between 2009 and 2019 under the NYC Department of Correction across six Rikers facilities.
Last year, 16 people have died due to the horrific treatment on Rikers Island. Rikers has long been known for its unspeakable violence and inhumane conditions. As a result, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration proposed to close it and replace it with four new jails in four boroughs.
“The name is infamous, but people don’t actually know anything about Rikers,” says Olayemi Olurin, a public defender at the Legal Aid Society. “Because of the infamy of Rikers, people assume it’s a terrible place for terrible people. They think it’s a place for awful people who’ve been convicted. Rikers is [also] a pretrial detention center. It’s literally just anybody who can’t afford bail.”
Stephan, however, was held at Rikers without bail. He was scheduled to appear in court on Oct. 25, 2021, a month after he passed away, and nearly two years after his arrest.
Olurin, who works with inmates at Rikers, says the situation there is out of control.
“It’s not just [the lack of] medical attention. They have tens and tens of people packed into one cell. People literally have nowhere to lay, they’re on top of one another. There’s the rampant violence, not just among the incarcerated people themselves, but from the guards, which has gone up exponentially,” she says. “[There are] hundreds and hundreds of cases of use of force by corrections officers. Not to mention rape and sexual violence. Anything terrible you can think of is what’s happening to people inside there.”
Khadu filed a wrongful death lawsuit following Stephan’s death. Meningitis infections are preventable and if treated, should not be fatal.
“If I’m in jail, I shouldn’t be deprived of a meal. I shouldn’t be deprived of medical attention. I shouldn’t be deprived of a shower,” she says.
The lawsuit is still pending, and Khadu is not able to provide further details.
Olurin says the abuse at Rikers must end and jails have to close and that the borough-based jails the city is planning to build in order to close Rikers by 2027 must go too.
“[The city] needs to start de-incarcerating people now. They need to start releasing people now. They need to start making substantial actual steps to close Rikers and not just to close Rikers and create jails and repeat the same conditions there,” Olurin says. “It’s not good enough to take what is Rikers and just put it elsewhere. The problem is it isn’t a spiritual problem with Rikers soil, that will disappear in another jail. It’s what [the Department of Corrections] is doing.
“I would love it if they close the place down. Let’s reform this,” she says.
Stephan was set to go to trial on Oct. 25, 2021, one month after he passed away. According to Khadu, it is unknown when the other men indicted along with Stephan will go to trial and they are still detained on Rikers Island.
Super, Stephan’s friend from Rikers, occasionally stays in touch with Khadu. He was transported back to Rikers Island from The Boat. He still fondly remembers his “brother,” Stephan.
All families have left, like Stephan’s and that of Tarz Youngblood, 38, the latest inmate to die at Rikers, are memories of their loved ones.
“He wasn’t just a person in jail. He was a human, he was a son. He was a father. He was a brother. He was a cousin. He was a friend and he had a humongous family and people that loved him,” Khadu says.
Stephan leaves behind his family, including his two children, Kalani, 6, and Stephan Jr., 4.