New York’s Rikers Island, one of the largest and most notorious jails in the world, is reaching a breaking point after more than a dozen incarcerated people died this year alone, in what elected officials and advocates are calling a humanitarian crisis.
The jail, located on an island in between the Bronx and Queens, has descended into dangerous chaos. Those with access to visit reported seeing inmates walking around with infected self-harm wounds, an inmate hijacking a bus full of prisoners and crashing it into a wall, and a lack of access to basic hygiene products.
Most of the 5,700 people held in jail in New York City are held in Rikers, with the majority awaiting trial because they cannot afford the high bail set by the judges presiding over their case. Last week it was announced that women and transgender people would be moved out of the jail to other facilities.
Some state and local elected officials who toured the complex recently have been left traumatized, such as the former public defender and Democratic candidate for city council Tiffany Cabán.
“People were relieving themselves into bags. They were sleeping on floors,” Cabán said. “These were the kinds of things you think about if they were happening in another country, you would believe without any hesitation that these were human rights violations. Nobody should ever be treated or kept in these conditions.”
The New York city council has already voted to permanently close Rikers in 2026, but the recent worsening of conditions has spurred doubts about the sustainability of the huge jail complex even for the next five years. With about 500 inoperable cell doors, a lack of toilets that has forced inmates to defecate in bags, and a jail guard force hit by high absenteeism, justice advocates say it’s unclear how long Rikers can stay open.
Of the 11 people who officially died in custody at Rikers in 2021 so far, five were suicides and the remaining cases are under investigation, according to the city’s office of the chief medical examiner. The deaths of two additional incarcerated men, Tomas Carlo Camacho and Victor Mercado, are not counted as “in-custody” since they were granted compassionate release before dying in hospital.
In addition to the unusually high death count, reports of chaos inside the jails from elected officials who visited the island last month rang alarms about the worsening conditions on the island. The conditions prompted New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, to finally visit Rikers, but he did not tour inmate housing facilities, a decision which was criticised by correction officers and state legislators.
A spokesperson for the department of corrections (DOC) union, the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA), blamed the crisis at Rikers on De Blasio and his refusal to hire more staff, though New York City employs more correctional officers per incarcerated person than the national average. There are five correctional officers for every three incarcerated people in New York; on average, the US employs five correctional officers for every 21 incarcerated people.
The corrections spokesperson described staff in Rikers who have struggled under the poor conditions of the jail and been hit especially hard by the strains of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We had 1,800 correctional officers [in 2021] that got Covid – officers out with long-term Covid,” the DOC spokesperson said. “We have officers physically and mentally exhausted from working these 25-hour or more shifts. They’re going to work on Monday, not knowing they’re going home on a Wednesday.”
On 7 September, the city announced it would hire an additional 600 correctional officers, but recruitment is proving challenging. Only 64 new recruits attended the last training session.
The correction officers’ critics include leftist state elected officials who advocate the complete and immediate shutdown of Rikers. Assemblywoman Emily Gallagher, who represents north Brooklyn, does not believe there is a staffing problem at Rikers, but rather a misuse of the staff already available.
“DOCs and COBA [the union] both claimed they need to hire more officers, but repeatedly failed to identify where in the system this new staff would be allocated,” Gallagher wrote in a tweet after a public hearing. “The [independent] federal monitor says DOCs have more than enough staff and the problem is poor management. I believe that.”
In the public hearing held by a panel of state assembly members, Gallagher questioned the DOC’s union president, Benny Boscio Jr, on his position regarding vaccines. Boscio said that only about 45% of correction officers were “probably” vaccinated – a troubling statistic as many officers were missing shifts due to Covid exposure. Boscio later admitted to the press that he was not vaccinated himself.
But as the debate rages over why Rikers has descended into chaos, 13 inmates are now dead over the past year. Leo Glickman is the attorney representing the estate of Isa Abdul Karim, the 11th inmate to die at Rikers in 2021. He said he learned Karim had died on social media.
“I found out via a tweet of a state senator, Jessica Salazar,” Glickman said.
He said his reaction to Karim’s death was “shock and dismay” and said he believed the conditions at Rikers were due to “abject neglect”.
According to Glickman, Karim was kept for at least seven days in what should have been a temporary holding pen with other incarcerated people, after technically violating his parole terms. Glickman began representing Karim in 2017, when Karim wanted to file suit against the department of corrections at Rikers Island for another incident in 2016.
Glickman is now representing Karim’s family and estate. His law office is awaiting the release of Karim’s medical records, jail information, and autopsy paperwork to assess how to bring justice to his former client.
In response to the crisis at the jail, the New York governor, Kathy Hochul, signed the Less is More Act on 17 September, which would prevent those with non-criminal technical parole violations from returning to jail. Less is More will not go into effect until March 2022, but after the act was signed, 191 people were immediately released.
Karim was one day short of qualifying for the 30-day minimum stay requirement to be released under Less is More when he died.
“When you look at the people who are on Rikers, these are people who should just be released into their communities with support,” Cabán said. “We know they are overwhelmingly there because they cannot afford their bail.”