From The Altamont Enterprise, November 13, 2014
A mother's story of agony over her son's death, by his own hand in the county jail
by Anne Hayden Harwood and Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND — A grieving mother wants her son’s death to be a wakeup call for the county jail.
Maryanne Rappaport, whose son, Adam, hanged himself in the Albany County jail last month, is committed to policy reform for the institution, “so that no other family has to suffer the incredible pain and suffering that we are,” she wrote in a letter to the Enterprise editor this week.
Mr. Rappaport was arrested on Oct. 16, for two attempted burglaries, and was found dead in his cell at the jail on Oct. 18.
Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple said that Mr. Rappaport was “in reception” at the time of his death, meaning he was between intake and official classification. He said Mr. Rappaport had not indicated that he was suicidal during his intake screening.
Mrs. Rappaport is left with questions about why her son, who was addicted to heroin, was not being watched for signs of detoxification.
She wonders what could have happened in the hours that separated the posting of a letter that contained hope and the decision to end his life a few hours later.
She is frustrated by the treatment and response she has received from the Albany County Sheriff’s Office and the personnel at the jail.
Mrs. Rappaport turned her son over to the Guilderland police for the two attempted burglaries, after hearing his description on television news.
She did it, she said, because she wanted to keep him safe.
In the weeks leading up to his arrest, she said her son had been struggling with his addiction and with other health problems.
Mrs. Rappaport described him as “special and brilliant.”
As a 3-year-old, he would take electronics apart and put them back together, she said.
He was also “intense” and “sensitive” and, had the knowledge and testing been as widespread when he was a child, he likely would have been diagnosed as on the Autism spectrum, said his mother.
As a teenager, he had difficulty with being in school, and dropped out when he was 15, two years after his parents’ divorce. At that time, said Mrs. Rappaport, he was having run-ins with the police, who would often bring him home late at night.
After dropping out of high school, Mr. Rappaport decided he wanted to go to Hudson Valley Community College, in Troy, where he studied electronics.
“He passed the admissions test with flying colors,” said Mrs. Rappaport. “He did great there and he actually loved school for once.”
But, she said, his propensity for living life “in the fast lane” led to trouble when he got in a snowboarding accident that injured his spleen.
He was hospitalized and received morphine for more than a week and then had an unlimited supply of oxycodone, a prescription narcotic pain reliever.
Although Mr. Rappaport was able to function and hold down a good job after he was released from the hospital, he had started to abuse the oxycodone, said his mother.
“He was making good money, more than I do,” said Mrs. Rappaport, who works as a teacher.
“It was flowing back then,” said Mrs. Rappaport, about her son’s ability to buy the oxycodone on the street. “It was like candy to the kids; whoever wanted it, got it.”
He worked at several jobs that allowed him to finance his habit, but, after quitting or being fired from them, he turned to heroin because it was cheaper, and more readily available once restrictions on prescription drugs were tightened.
“Oxy was starting to dry up,” said Mrs. Rappaport.
In 2010, said Mrs. Rappaport, he got in trouble with the law, and was sent to a rehabilitation center in Utica, Insight House.
“He did so great there. He really needed the structure,” she said, but she was bothered when he wasn’t placed on probation.
“He stumbled but was trying to recover and start working again,” said Mrs. Rappaport.
It was in September of this year that he approached her and told her that he was using heroin again and was about to be kicked out of his apartment.
“The landlord loved him. Everybody loved him. He would fix things,” she said, but it wasn’t enough.
“From September, he was technically homeless and bounced from friend’s house to friend’s house until he had used up all his favors,” she said.
In mid-September, he had a dirt-bike accident and re-injured his spleen.
He was sent to a hospital in Westchester, where they treated his injuries, but did not address the fact that he was detoxing from heroin, she said.
When she visited him there, he expressed suicidal thoughts, she said, like, “I’m just a burden to everyone.”
Mrs. Rappaport said, “I was really worried.”
Mr. Rappaport checked himself out of the hospital and made his way back to Albany, where he attempted to detox alone, in his car, in the parking lot of Albany Memorial Hospital. His spleen ruptured, she said.
“I got a phone call that I had 30 minutes to get there if I wanted to see him,” said Mrs. Rappaport. “They didn’t think he’d make it.”
Mr. Rappaport was rushed to Albany Medical Center, where he was placed in the intensive care unit.
“When they tried to flush Adam’s veins out he screamed, the most blood-curdling scream, because his veins were so inflamed from the heroin use,” she said.
She told the nurse, “This is a public service announcement, right here, right now, that people cannot handle doing these drugs. It’s not OK. It stole Adam’s life.”
Mr. Rappaport once again checked himself out of the hospital.
“Since then our lives have been an absolute blur,” Mrs. Rappaport said. She said her son was “not right in his mind” but not eligible for long-term treatment since “he’d used up so much.”
On Sept. 27, he stopped for a traffic violation in Niskayuna.
He was taken into custody because he had missed several court dates, but he was sent to the hospital, with officers, because of his injuries, she said.
After being released from the hospital, he called Mrs. Rappaport to come and pick him up. (Calls to the Niskayuna police, seeking comment, were not returned.)
“He didn’t want to be a burden,” she said. “He had exhausted all of his options for living.”
Through tears, she said, “I brought him to the city mission.”
“I didn’t know what else to do,” she said. “I wanted him to at least have a warm place to sleep and food.”
“They were so welcoming and there was no judgment,” she said.
Unfortunately, she said, his detox did not last, and he went back to using heroin, getting high during the day before going to the Capital City Rescue Mission for the night.
Mr. Rappaport had been staying at the city mission for several days when his mother heard his description on the news in connection with the two attempted burglaries in Guilderland.
“I was absolutely panicked,” she said. “I was inconsolable.”
She said she told Guilderland Police officers that her son was due back in Niskayuna court on Tuesday night. “I told them he was sensitive and I know I told them he might be suicidal and to watch him,” she said.
She received a phone call from her son after he was arrested on Wednesday morning, and she said that he was apologetic about the burglaries, especially one in which he scared an elderly woman who spotted him at her window.
That was the last she heard from her son. Friday, he called his father from the jail and said “he was detoxing but he felt OK,” she said.
His family didn’t hear from him again until a letter, posted the same day as his death, Oct. 18, arrived in the mail the day after his funeral.
Mrs. Rappaport said a friend of her sister-in-law overheard the call about Mr. Rappaport on an emergency medical technician radio, and called the family.
They rushed to the emergency room, at Albany Medical Center, where Mr. Rappaport arrived, after the EMTs had worked on him for 45 minutes to keep his heart beating.
He was placed on life support.
The official cause of death from the coroner was reported as “strangulation by a thin, woven object,” she said.
A computerized tomography scan showed that Mr. Rappaport had no brain activity.
A choice had to be made — keep him on life support or remove it.
“Everyone looked at me and said it was my call,” Mrs. Rappaport said.
If he were to live, he would be “like a vegetable” for the rest of his life, she said.
She described trying to make her decision, while just beyond the curtain, personnel from the sheriff’s office made jokes about heroin and junkies, and referred to her son as a corpse.
She decided to have him taken off life support and to donate his organs.
“It was the only light I could see,” she said.
She then had “a five-minute window to say goodbye,” Mrs. Rappaport said.
She described lying next to him and holding him, when an officer walked into the sterile environment with no warning and no reason, just because he was curious about what was happening; he wore no gown, mask, or gloves, like the doctors and nurses prepping to harvest her son’s organs.
“I couldn’t think straight,” she said. “He violated my space.”
“I held on a little too long; they prolonged my agony,” she said of the corrections officers making jokes.
Her son’s organs were unable to be donated.
When a letter from the jail arrived the day after Mr. Rappaport’s funeral, his mother said she and her family assumed it would be a suicide note.
“It was the opposite,” she said.
In his letter, he acknowledged doing wrong, said he loved his family, and asked for their support.
“He sounded positive,” said Mrs. Rappaport. “The letter was sent just hours before he was found. We don’t know what happened in between.”
Wanting information about the last hours of her son’s life, Mrs. Rappaport wrote an email to Sheriff Apple, and, when it went unanswered, she called.
She had to call several times before he responded, and even then, she said, he didn’t have much information to offer, other than telling her she could make an impact statement.
“He said I could make the statement whenever I was ready, and I told him I was ready now,” she said. “But, he repeated to call back when I was ready.”
Then, she said, she went to the jail to pick up Mr. Rappaport’s belongings. She hoped that she would be able to meet the superintendent of the jail.
Instead, an administrative employee, along with the jail’s addiction counselor, brought her a brown paper bag with her son’s clothes and possessions.
She said she had a glimmer of hope when she saw the addiction counselor, because she thought perhaps the counselor could give her some insight to her son’s last hours.
But, she said, the counselor told her that she had not actually seen Mr. Rappaport during his latest incarceration — she had met him once, in 2007, when he had been briefly held in the jail.
“I was thinking, ‘I’m just a mom, my kid was brought here, I just want to know what happened,’” said Mrs. Rappaport. “But I can’t get any answers.”
She wants answers, she said, so she can find peace, but also so she can help prevent other families from going through the same thing.
“I feel bad for these families getting tied up in this heroin epidemic,” she said.
She has questions about her son’s treatment at the jail, including “Why didn’t he see anyone for his addiction problem or management of his psych meds? Why are these kids being left to detox on their own?”
“Families might think they’re children are safe,” she said, of having a family member incarcerated. “But your kids aren’t safe there.”
“Adam was clearly ready to do his time, do what he needed to do, and then within 24 hours he was dead,” said Mrs. Rappaport. “Something is really wrong. There’s a disconnect somewhere.”
Even through her grief, Mrs. Rappaport was able to find some beauty in remembering her son’s life.
“For a kid who thought nobody loved him,” she said, there was a line or mourners that stretched out of the temple.
At his funeral, a friend of his, a fellow addict, stood and walked up to the bima without prompting. He spoke about Mr. Rappaport, talking about his friendship, support, and understanding.
“He admitted he struggled with addiction every day of his life,” said Mrs. Rappaport.
“There had been some anger in the family,” said Mrs. Rappaport. “After that, it melted away.”
She also described a peaceful walk to the crematorium, the immediate family following behind the hearse, when birds were singing, with a waterfall in the background.
Mrs. Rappaport still doesn’t want anyone else to go through what she went through.
Her message for the sheriff, asking for better protocols, is short and to the point: “No more grieving mothers.”