NEW YORK (PIX11) — Decarceration advocates and correction officers alike have blasted conditions in the Rikers Island jail facility, where nine inmates have died this year. The facility has been dubbed “Horror Island” by New York leaders who toured on Monday to witness “horrific” conditions inside the jail.
During the visit, Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani spoke to an inmate who attempted suicide on the same day as detainee Esias Johnson’s death. “He chose to attempt death over living a life in this facility,” Mamdani said.
Lawmakers described raw sewage in Rikers. They said inmates aren’t getting enough food, space, or access to medical care or mental health resources. New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas, and State Senator Jessica Ramos were also part of the group who visited. Williams called the experience “shocking,” while González-Rojas said she and Ramos witnessed an attempted suicide:
“We, for years and years, have been working to change the situation in a place that’s just profoundly broken, that should have been closed a long time ago, and we are closing it,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “But we have invested a huge amount to try to fix that situation, even in a place, bluntly, we shouldn’t be anymore.”
Despite investments—de Blasio said the city has poured money into Rikers to try and fix the problem to no end—Congressman Jamaal Bowman said funding is a “complex situation,” with hundreds of employees are calling out on a daily basis. “All these things are converging at the same time,” he said.
Rikers Island is not expected to shut down for another six years, but Bowman says the city cannot wait until then to address the facility’s “inhumane” issues. De Blasio has defended efforts to improve conditions at Rikers. He advocated a since-delayed plan to shut down the facility and move to community-based jails.
Rep. Bowman referenced one inmate who was mute and “traumatized” after being forced into a small, shower-sized jail cell. He also said there is a mindset that goes into the infrastructure designed to care for the incarcerated people, contributing to the inhumane conditions.
Bowman believes that some “should not be in there” and must be decarcerated as soon as possible, including those incarcerated over technical parole violations. In addition, he said the city should provide spaces for those who can’t afford bail rather than throw them into Rikers—roughly 85% of detainees are pretrial defendants who have not been convicted of any crime.
“It is not safe in there for anyone, on both sides of those bars,” Williams said. “Everybody is unsafe. It is dysfunction,” he added. Williams said he was calling on both Hochul and de Blasio to stop whatever they are doing and visit the jail complex to see the conditions for themselves.
“This is a situation that is ripe for disaster,” Williams warned. “There was not enough people there to even staff,” the public advocate said, adding that there were also “people who were living in filth.”
Williams said there were correction officers who had been there for days, sometimes working quadruple shifts without breaks. There has also reportedly been no mental health assistance for the inmates, who need all the support they can get. People have made calls for a change in Rikers for years, but what can be done in the immediate future?
Bowman also discussed the Less is More Act, which would decarcerate much of Rikers, put 1,000 detainees up for release, and “decrease the numbers by hundreds.” It has been passed in the Assembly and State House and is now at the governor’s desk, Bowman said. Mamdani called on Hochul to immediately sign and implement the bill.
Correction Officers Benevolent Association members have protested over the conditions and staffing issues. COBA filed a lawsuit against the New York City Department of Correction in Queens Supreme Court in July, calling conditions for officers at DOC facilities nothing short of a human rights emergency requiring immediate attention.
Union President Benny Boscio lambasted de Blasio, who he said hasn’t visited Rikers in four years. He agreed inmates weren’t getting what they needed, but said that it comes down to “eight years of neglect.”
“They created this mess and now they want to let all the criminals out in the street, as if there’s not enough crime in the street. Yes, inmates are suffering, corrections are suffering—25-plus hours working straight, no meal breaks,” Boscio said. “Then they wonder why we’re not coming to work? Why officers are AWOL? Assaults on my members are through the roof.”
According to Boscio, a correction officer hasn’t been hired in three years, even though over 1,000 officers have resigned since 2019, on top of officers retiring. “We want everybody to be safe, but reform is a two-sided coin.”
While Boscio insists that lawmakers have been focused on helping inmates at the expense of corrections officers, Meghna Philip of Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem said the situation at Rikers has been “ignored, pushed aside and hidden.”
“Six thousand people are trapped on this island in inhumane, torturous conditions,” Philip said. “It is literally about life and death.”
DOC Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi said he shared lawmakers’ commitment to improving conditions at Rikers. “We have been very clear about the many challenges we have been facing for months, as well as everything we are doing to address the underlying conditions, and it is a good thing that the elected officials who visited today now have a first-hand picture,” he said. “That can only help our efforts.”
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