A sky view of Riders Island. The jail complex has seven facilities throughout the island.
Image Source: formulanone / Flickr https://flickr.com/photos/30552029@N00/35145738901

The Continued Urgency to Close Rikers Island

Trigger warning: This piece contains mentions of suicide and suicidal ideation.

Sixteen people have died in police custody on Rikers Island this year. Their names were Tarz Youngblood, George Pagan, Herman Diaz, Dashawn Carter, Mary Yehudah, Emmanuel Sullivan, Anibal Carrasquillo, Albert Drye, Antonio Bradley, Elijah Muhammad, Michael Lopez, Ricardo Cruciani, Michael Nieves, Kevin Bryan, Gregory Acevedo, and Elmore Robert Pondexter (Vera Institute). In 2021, there were 16 deaths, with this year on pace to be higher. Most of them were awaiting their day in court in a jail complex known for violence, overcrowding, and widespread abuse and neglect. Activists call for the city to close Rikers Island amid its ongoing “humanitarian crisis” (Twitter). And the conditions at Rikers are not unique. They underscore the prevalence of human rights abuse in the carceral system.

“It is beyond heartbreaking that we continue to hear about the many fully preventable deaths that continue to happen on Rikers Island, Victor Pate, co-director of the #HALTSolitary Campaign, said in a statement following the death of Sullivan, the sixth person to die in 2022 (Twitter). “How many more people will die before our public officials will finally start releasing people, stop sending people to these deadly jails, and do something to change the horrible conditions?”

TAKE ACTION

• Join the #HALTSolitary rally TODAY on September 28 and sign the petition to end solitary confinement in NYC jails.

• Support organizations like Women’s Community Justice Association and #HALTSolitary Campaign working to help incarcerated people in Rikers.

• Support bails funds and mutual aid funds for incarcerated people, including those in immigration detention and held in solitary confinement.

Rikers, one of the largest jail systems based in New York City, holds seven of the eight facilities housing people in custody in the region. It is designated as a temporary holding for those convicted with short-term sentences, pending transit to another facility, or those awaiting trial who have been denied or cannot post bail. The latter, also known as pretrial detention, makes up the majority of people detained at Rikers, which is on par nationwide as more than 80% of people in jail aren’t convicted of a crime (Prison Policy Initiative). Currently, of the 5,057 people detained pretrial, over 4,000 have been held in custody for 31 to 90 days, and 1,097 for more than one year (Vera Institute). 

Poverty is a significant factor in pretrial detention since an “overwhelming majority” of people in custody cannot post bail, which is, on average, $10,000 (Prison Policy Initiative). Even in New York City, where the bail is relatively lower compared to other regions, only 15% of defendants were able to pay $500 or less bail (New York Times). This disproportionately affects Black people and Hispanic women who are already living below the poverty line and are the most likely to be unable to post bail. In a sense, the legal system operates by incarcerating people, specifically Black and Brown people, for being poor devoid of a conviction, and under the presumption of innocence. 

The prolonged custody can cause many issues, including job loss, family strain, and exposure to violence. “Data shows that the longer one remains in custody, the greater the likelihood that they will be involved in a violent incident,” states the NY Department of Correction’s Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report (NY Department of Correction).

This was the case with Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old Black teen held in pretrial detention from 2010 to 2013 for allegedly stealing a backpack (ACLU). Browder was sent to Rikers after he could not pay the $3,000 bail, spent nearly two years in solitary confinement, and experienced violent abuse by other detainees and guards. In 2014, a U.S. Justice Department report found “a pattern and practice of conduct at Rikers that violates the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates” where force was used “not as a last resort, but instead as a means to control” (Department of Justice). The charges against Browder were eventually dropped without receiving a trial. He died by suicide two years after his release. Former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio cites Browder’s story as inspiration for his efforts to reform Rikers Island (AMNY). In 2018, New York’s Raise the Age law passed, which ended the practice of charging teens under 18 as adults and meant removing teens from Rikers (the Appeal).

The jail complex has a history of violence and inhumane nature, but in the past decade, renewed calls to close Rikers Island following images of people crammed in filthy temporary holding cells, a hunger strike in 2022 to improve conditions, and the discovery of the use “decontamination showers” as a form of solitary confinement (NY PostCity & State NYNBC). Exposure to such confinement has been associated with an increased risk of death during community reentry (JAMA Network).

Elijah Muhammad spent more than 32 hours in a “decontamination shower,” violating department rules. He had no bed or access to medical care despite being on treatment for an unspecified mental illness. He would later die by suicide after being returned to his cell. Muhammad would be the 10th person to die in Rikers this year while in pretrial detention (New York Times).

In 2019, the city introduced plans to close Rikers Island and build four smaller jails throughout the boroughs by 2026 but was officially delayed a year (The City). The plan to replace Rikers instead of decarceration has also received pushback from organizers like Neighbors United Below Canal. They are against further mass incarceration and the potential demolition of Chinatown to build one of the new jails. The #HALTsolitary Campaign, led by people who survived or had family members impacted by solitary confinement, is pushing to end the practice in New York with the Humane Alternative to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act

The conditions at Rikers are not an exception but a standard of dehumanization and degradation in the legal system, one that thrives off the incarceration and violence against poor Black and Brown people, devoid of a conviction and despite their presumption of innocence. And the continued failures to effectively address and end the suffering at Rikers will only lead to more deaths. 


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• Sixteen people have died on Rikers Island amid calls to close the jail complex. 

• The inhumane conditions at Rikers are not an exception but indicate a larger problem in the carceral system. 

• Failure to address the consequences of mass incarceration will lead to more deaths. 


If you need to talk, or if you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741, or you can call or text 988 for the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline

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