VOCAL-NY and Freedom Agenda organization (308430)
Credit: Contributed photo

Rikers Island is becoming a “hellish” “humanitarian crisis” that needs to be closed, said officials who toured the jail on Monday, following the death of 24-year-old Esias Johnson who died in the facility last week. 

In response to the officials and advocates’ passionate outcry, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed an emergency order called the Emergency Rikers Relief Plan on Tuesday, Sept. 14, to address the deplorable conditions in the jail. 

De Blasio said the situation on Rikers Island “is just not acceptable and has to change fundamentally.” According to Commissioner of the Department of Correction (DOC) Vincent Schiraldi, some of the challenges are historic and some are because of COVID, said de Blasio. 

In the past, de Blasio had already backed the Close Rikers campaign where the jail would be decommissioned in favor of five smaller borough jails. To summarize, de Blasio’s executive order called for the NYPD to help operate courts so staff can shift back to Rikers, more accountability for AWOL DOC officers, emergency contracting for repairs and cleaning, and speeding up intake to reduce crowding. The plan doesn’t expressly announce the immediate closing of Rikers and transfer of all 6,076 incarcerated individuals, most of whom are comprised of Black men according to city data. 

Parts of the mayor’s plan did, however, aim to enact the Less is More Act––which focuses on rehabilitation and release as opposed to incarceration––and speed up transfers out of Rikers into state-run facilities. 

Mayor-elect Eric Adams’ office said that he is in support of helping heal Rikers now.

“Eric believes the situation at Rikers is now a full-blown crisis that must be addressed with immediate investments in personnel and resources, as well as new policies that protect inmates and officers alike—and that we cannot wait for new jails to solve this problem,” said Adams’ staff member Evan Thies.

Decarceration advocates and corrections representatives alike seemed less than impressed with the mayor’s plan, saying it was inadequate and unable to solve the uptick in violence on Rikers.

Johnson’s death followed the tragic deaths of Brandon Rodriguez on Aug. 10 and Segundo Guallpa on Aug. 30. He was technically the tenth incarcerated person to die on Rikers while awaiting trial in the last nine months.

A coalition of criminal justice advocates, such as New York City Jails Action Coalition, Freedom Agenda, and VOCAL-NY, said that a growing jail population and correction officers missing in action have led to people being denied food, medical attention, transportation to court dates, and are being locked in showers amidst feces and left on pseudo-lockdown for hours at a time or longer.

The city jail population dropped significantly from March to April 2020, but has since gone back up. In his interview with Erroll Louis on Monday, de Blasio said he worked with Correctional Health Services during the pandemic to get about 1,600 incarcerated people out for “humane reasons” and that the COVID-19 crisis has been a “horrible, negative multiplier” of conditions in the jail.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas, Senators Jessica Ramos and Alessandra Biaggi, and U.S. Rep Jamaal Bowman, among others, surveyed the conditions of the jail up close this week. 

“This morning I toured Rikers Island, where three inmates died in the past month amid understaffing and over-incarceration concerns. Decarceration is the humane, responsible solution. We’re paying nearly half-a-million dollars per year per inmate at Rikers. That’s unacceptable,” said Congressman Jamaal Bowman via Twitter about his visit.

The politicians said they saw “urine and fecal matter strewn over the floor,” individuals coughing up blood, and an attempted suicide on their tour, reported amNews.

“Rikers is an emergency environment, one in which the humanity and health of everyone inside are being disregarded. I was shaken during yesterday’s tour, and I am scared for the well-being of everyone who lives or works on Rikers. Corrections staff and incarcerated people alike are in constant, imminent danger. It is a humanitarian crisis rapidly descending toward even greater disaster,” said Williams in a statement.

Williams has pushed to decarcerate as many eligible individuals as possible and improve the overall safety of incarcerated people and correction officers, said his office.

“I implore the mayor and the governor to go to Rikers today, immediately,” said Williams. “See what I saw, hear what I heard, and you will know the moral, human obligation of using every tool available to provide disaster relief.”

Officials, like U.S. Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and Councilmember Adrienne Adams, also joined the chorus of electeds asking the mayor to deal with the immediate crisis while also closing Rikers and replacing it with borough-based jails. “The dangerous conditions, staffing shortage, and abysmal mismanagement at Rikers Island have completely devolved into a humanitarian crisis that needs to be addressed immediately,” said Adams, “This harrowing situation has been a ticking time bomb for years now.”

Freedom Agenda Co-founder Brandon J. Holmes leads a member-led project of individuals who have been on Rikers. Holmes is an avid supporter of closing Rikers and has been working towards that goal since 2016.

Holmes said that Rikers is essentially being used as a “prison” which generally has a larger population and holds people for long sentences. He said hordes of corrections officers have called in sick or not shown up in the past year. In August, he said he spent time doing voter registration for the incarcerated and saw whole rooms with at least 60 open cots where people were sleeping communally, no masks, no circulating air, sticky floors, and a bad stench.

“Our biggest demand is that people like Esias should have never been on Rikers Island in the first place. The city has the resources to make available housing to do supervised release, or to keep people like Esias off of the island and anyone sent there is at risk of serious injury or death,” said Holmes.

Holmes said the police have pushed a certain level of “propaganda” that perpetuates the need to lock people up in order for the masses to feel safer. 

“Now playing into that fear mongering from the NYPD again, the majority of these charges didn’t warrant one year of the sentence, one year or less. And the mayor is backtracking on the commitment to get all those people off Rikers and find alternatives for them simply because the NYPD commissioner spoke up and doesn’t want to face that backlash,” said Holmes.

In tandem, former acting president of Correction Officers Benevolent Association (COBA) Elias Husamudeen agreed that the mayor’s plan was “not a plan at all” but for very different reasons.

He is not in favor of closing Rikers at all or reducing officers, because he sees the situation as a “real estate land grab” that will not solve the underlying social and mental issues that cause violent conditions or violent incarcerated people. 

A recent letter from the Nunez federal monitor, Steve J. Martin, testified to the “unreasonably high” levels of violence this summer at Rikers throughout the jail complex, reported The New York Times. 

Husamudeen theorized that because low-level offenders, such as turnstile jumpers or weed smokers, have been going into the jail at a lower rate means that the people left are likely there for much more violent or deadly offenses. This is why there’s been more violence on Rikers recently, said Husamudeen.

“The issue is not the zip code or where a jail is located, the issue is whether or not the jail is safe regardless of where its located,” said Husamudeen. “Part of today’s crisis is rather than address the issue of safety, they were more focused on closing the jails.”

Husamudeen said that it was completely unfair to expect overworked corrections officers, on their third or fourth shift at times, to perform to the best of their abilities. He said he didn’t think anything proposed in the relief plan can address the ongoing staffing problems and the uptick in violence, especially if that meant punishing “AWOL” officers.

“These are things that have been brewing for a while. The union and others have been trying to get the mayor’s attention for a while concerning this,” said Husamudeen. “To the politicians who took the tour, it’s wonderful they expressed some interest, but the reality is most of them have known about this long before.”   

In Tuesday’s morning briefing, de Blasio said that the city is taking steps to relieve pressure on the situation. He received pushback that the closing was not part of the announced plan.

“It is part of the plan I just announced, and there’s a right way to do it, and I think there could be a wrong way to do it too. I want to do it the right way,” said de Blasio. 

“We’ve got hundreds and hundreds of folks who are incarcerated, who don’t need to be based on this new law that if signed could immediately relieve some of the pressure, but we need that law signed and implemented immediately,” he said about the Less Is More Act.

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here: bit.ly/amnews1