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Close Rikers

Demonstrators call for the closure of Rikers Island jail at a February 23, 2016 protest at New York City Hall in Manhattan. (Photo: Ashoka Jegroo/Waging Nonviolence/Creative Commons)

Amid Calls for Closure, House Dems Urge NYC Officials to End 'Inhumane Conditions' at Rikers

A dozen prisoners have died this year alone at the notoriously violent and overcrowded jail complex.

Brett Wilkins

Citing "uninhabitable" conditions and a fourfold increase in inmate deaths over the past two years, U.S. House Democrats on Monday urged New York City's mayor and corrections chief to immediately address the "deplorable" situation at Rikers Island jail—where a dozen prisoners have died this year alone.

"I have visited prisons in Haiti. What I saw when I went to visit Rikers was worse."
—Assemblywoman Phara Souffrant Forrest

In a letter (pdf) to outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYC Department of Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, House Oversight Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Civil Rights Subcommittee Chair Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) note that conditions at the notorious jail "appear to have rapidly deteriorated in recent months."

"Widespread staffing shortages—caused by the coronavirus pandemic as well as persistent overcrowding and mounting violence—have rendered the facility unsafe for individuals who are incarcerated and for [Department of Correction] staff," the lawmakers write.

Noting that the number of in-custody deaths on Rikers Island has risen from three in 2019 to 12 in 2021, the letter states that "the most recent fatality, on September 22, occurred when 24-year old Stephan Khadu suffered a medical emergency while detained on a floating barge that was created nearly 30 years ago as a temporary solution to overcrowding."

"Just three days prior, on September 19, Isa Abdul-Karim, a 42-year old father of two with preexisting health conditions, died shortly after experiencing a medical emergency," the letter adds. "He had reportedly been denied access to food, medication, and critical medical care prior to his death."

The wheelchair-bound Abdul-Karim was jailed at Rikers for a technical parole violation.

The letter continues:

Numerous reports have highlighted Rikers Island's uninhabitable conditions. New York state lawmakers who visited the facility on September 13 described Rikers as "an absolute humanitarian crisis."

Assemblywoman Emily Gallagher [D-50] reported that detained individuals are given "a single meal a day" and have limited access to water. She also observed "garbage everywhere, rotting food with maggots, cockroaches, worms in the shower," and human waste—conditions to which no human should be subjected.

In addition, the lawmakers reportedly observed dozens of detainees without masks packed into cramped cells with overflowing toilets. According to public reports, detainees in cells without functional toilets are forced to urinate and defecate in bags. Toilet paper, soap, and other basic cleaning products are seldom available to those incarcerated at Rikers. During their tour, the New York lawmakers witnessed a detainee attempt to kill himself with a bedsheet.

The members of Congress also note that Rikers corrections officers "are often forced to work double and triple shifts that leave them exhausted."

"In turn, these officers are unable to adequately monitor detainees, including those on suicide watch," the letter states. "According to public reports, at least five detainees have died of suspected suicides in 2021 alone."

While applauding Kathy Hochul, New York's new Democratic governor, for recently signing the Less Is More Act—parole reform legislation introduced by Assemblywoman Phara Souffrant Forrest (D-57)—the lawmakers say the move "may be insufficient to address the rapid population growth at the jail complex."

Furthermore, while de Blasio earlier this month unveiled an emergency plan in an attempt to tackle the mounting crisis at the lockup, the letter's signers "are concerned that it fails to meet the moment given the perilous situation on Rikers Island."

"We urge you to immediately address the inhumane conditions on Rikers Island, including by releasing low-level offenders into supervised programs, and restore the safety and dignity that individuals who are incarcerated and DOC staff deserve," the lawmakers write, demanding that the officials brief them on conditions at the jail by October 4.

Monday's letter follows a September 24 call by congressional Democrats from New York for the Biden administration to use federal resources to improve conditions at Rikers Island.

"The city cannot be trusted to manage Rikers Island on its own," asserted Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), who coordinated the letter. "Rikers is increasingly becoming a death sentence for those who have never been tried. If that is not a civil rights violation that warrants a federal investigation, I'm not sure what would be."

Spurred by scandals including the 2015 suicide of Kalief Browder, a teenager previously jailed at Rikers for three years without trial for allegedly stealing a backpack, de Blasio in 2019 proposed—and the City Council approved—a plan to close the facility by 2026. It has since been delayed.

In a Jacobin interview published Monday, Souffrant Forrest said that Rikers "is not fit for humans" and called for the jail's immediate closure.

"I have visited prisons in Haiti. What I saw when I went to visit Rikers was worse than prisons in a Third World country," the assemblywoman said. "The smell of bodies, decay, and feces; dead roaches and rats all over the place. Some of the showers are not working, and the toilets are covered in grime."

"The problem is mass incarceration," she added. "Mass incarceration is a capitalist- and racist-fueled system to continue to make sure that the working class lives under fear and tyranny."

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