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Rikers Island

A former Rikers Island inmate describes her attempt to kill herself at the notorious New York City jail during an October 1, 2021 City Hall protest featuring family members of prisoners who have died while imprisoned there. (Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images).

200 Inmates Hunger Strike Over 'Inhumane' Rikers Island

"It just keeps getting worse and worse," said one inmate at the notorious New York City jail. "I don't wish this upon nobody."

Brett Wilkins

A hunger strike by around 200 prisoners at New York City's Rikers Island jail entered its sixth day Thursday, as demonstrators continued to protest "deplorable" and dangerous conditions including lack of medical care during a surging Covid-19 outbreak at the notorious lockup, where 15 inmates died last year.

"There's no safety for us. There's no one to help us. It's scary in here."

"It just gets worse and worse," 55-year-old Rikers inmate Nelson Pinero told The New York Times, adding that mice and insects regularly keep him up at night.

"I don't wish this upon nobody," he said.

Inmates described freezing cold, vermin- and filth-ridden facilities, rampant violence including "fight nights" staged by gangs, and insufficient protection against Covid-19, which has recently sickened more than 370 prisoners in a jail where less than half of the population is fully vaccinated.

"There's no safety for us," Richard Colon, 41, told the Times. "There's no one to help us. It's scary in here."

Another inmate, 26-year-old Arian Medina, said that "people are going crazy in here. They're losing their minds."

Speaking at a Thursday rally organized by the Fortune Society in support of the hunger-striking inmates, New York City Council Member Carmen De La Rosa (D-10) hailed the prisoners' "defiance against a racist, oppressive system that extracts Black and Brown men from our community every single day."

De La Rosa said the Washington Heights, Inwood, and Marble Hill communities she represents have "been targeted and surveilled and imprisoned."

"When I tell you Rikers Island is a crisis, it's because I've seen what happens behind prisons walls across this state," the former state assembly member said. "None of the prisons across New York state are as bad as Rikers Island."

The vast majority of Rikers' approximately 5,400 inmates are pretrial detainees who have not been found guilty.

Gothamist reports:

By many measures, Rikers conditions have recently deteriorated. Sixteen held in city jails died last year, 15 of them at Rikers. Incidents of self-harm nearly doubled for a period last year, according to the federal monitor appointed to oversee the jail. Rates of violence have also increased, and residents have reported that the intake area where detainees are first processed is infested with vermin, and lacks beds and working toilets. Backlogs in the courts due to the pandemic have resulted in people being locked up for longer, awaiting disposition of criminal charges.

The Omicron-driven Covid-19 surge has also hit correctional workers hard, thinning staff ranks and further endangering inmates. According to the New York City Department of Correction, around 30% of employees were out sick as of Tuesday. This means prisoners are being forced to miss important medical appointments.

"There's just not enough officers to walk anyone around," Christopher Boyle of the New York County Defender Services told Gothamist.

Inmate Ervin Bowins said that his unit has been denied access to mail, recreation, medical and mental health services, and the law library to work on their cases. Bowins said conditions at Rikers fall short of "mandatory minimum standards for a human being."

Boyle told Gothamist that "everything is limited to a degree that’s never been seen before," and that inmates have "had enough."

"They've finally said this is what we're going to do to get some attention," he said of the hunger strike.

Prison abolitionists and other human rights activists have voiced solidarity with the hunger strikers, while decrying conditions at Rikers.

"We are in solidarity with the brave people incarcerated on Rikers Island who had to resort to a hunger strike to protest the deplorable and deadly conditions they are facing, especially as Covid rates skyrocket," Jerome Wright, statewide organizer of the #HaltSolitary campaign and member of the Jails Action Coalition, said in a statement.

"New York City officials need to act NOW to decarcerate, end solitary confinement, and ensure people have access to medical care and other basic needs," he added.

Incidents including the 2015 suicide of Kalief Browder, a teenager previously jailed at Rikers for three years without trial for allegedly stealing a backpack, spurred former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to propose a plan to close the facility by 2026. Although approved by the City Council over two years ago, the plan has since been delayed indefinitely.

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