Rikers Island: New York’s Heart of Darkness

Photograph Source: U.S. Geological Survey – Public Domain

A few weeks ago, New York City elected officials on a visit to the intake center of Rikers Island, the infamous prison complex that has stood on its own island in the East River since 1932, were greeted by one of the inmates attempting suicide. Assemblywoman Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas later told the New York Daily News ‘He jumped up, climbed the bars, and proceeded to bring a noose around his neck. I looked up, and I saw he was about to release himself from the bars and I kind of started yelling for the corrections officers.’ Fortunately the man was stopped in his attempt.

Recently, others at the prison have not been as fortunate. In January, 30 year old Wilson Diaz Guzman was found to have hung himself in his cell. In March, it was 30 year old Javier Velasco found unresponsive with a bedsheet wrapped around his neck. On August 10th, it was 25 year old Brandon Rodriguez with a T-Shirt. On August 30th, 58 year old Segundo Guallpa.

Then there was Robert Jackson found dead in July after a correction officer abandoned his post leaving Jackson unattended. According to the Correction Officers union, the guard, who is facing disciplinary action, had worked 20 straight hours without relief. Three more prison officers were suspended in connection with the death of 24 year old Esias Jackson in early September. An initial source claimed Jackson’s death the result of an overdose but the matter is still under review. Other inmates have come forward claiming Jackson had been complaining of stomach pains. Desperate pleas for medical attention were ignored according to the detainee who found him. On September 19th, Isa Abdul Karim, a wheelchair user with underlying medical conditions died from COVID-19 having spent days in an crowded intake unit of the Otis Bantum Correction Center, one of eight jails in the complex. Karim was forced to spend the entire time in his wheelchair for lack of bunks. He was one day shy of qualifying for release.

In all 12 people have died in city custody this year, 11 at Rikers Island (the 12th, Stephen Khadu, 24, died after being held at the Vernon C Bain Center, a nearby floating jail barge). Those just released from the prison have spoken of limited food, overcrowded conditions, and lack of medical attention. One 21 year old named Cameron (an alias) told New York Magazine ‘There’s no COs, they’re not feeding people, there’s no water, no showers, no phone calls. There’s people there that haven’t took showers in two weeks or longer. You barely eat; they don’t care. There were people in cells having seizures, and they just left them there. I was in a cell with 30 other people.’ 20 year old Mateo, released September 19th described: ‘They were just stuffing more and more prisoners- up to 32 or 38 people- in a cell without being tested for COVID. They wouldn’t bring us water if we needed it, they wouldn’t feed us; if the correction officers were mad, they wouldn’t come look at us even if somebody was passing out. There was a guy who had asthma showing them there was nothing inside his inhaler, on the floor grabbing his chest, and they just looked at him.’

One immediate problem is a lack of staff. According to city officials, in July 3500 out of 8500 Corrections Officers were either absent or medically exempt. On average there have been 2304 absences per month this year, compared with 773 per month last year. On September 20th the city filed a lawsuit against the Corrections Officers Benevolent Association (COBA) accusing the union of orchestrating an unlawful campaign of mass absenteeism. For its part COBA filed a suit against the city in July for creating an inhumane work environment.

Then there is the omnipresent question of simple competence. Closing Rikers Island has been the spoken aspiration of the city’s government for years. In 2019, the City Council approved a plan put forward by an independent commission to close the prison and open four smaller prisons throughout the city (needless to say the neighborhoods targeted for the new prisons have raised loud opposition).

In March 2020, as COVID was beginning to ravage the city (prisoners from Rikers served as gravediggers as the bodies piled up, a job they have long done at New York’s Potter’s Field)), Mayor de Blasio issued an executive order to lower the prison population due to safety concerns. City officials and the Department of Corrections brought the jail population below 4000, the lowest it has been since 1946. At the time de Blasio proclaimed ‘We have reached a historic milestone, and done so in a way that is both humanitarian and just. When I took office, there were over 11,000 people in our jails; six years later we have a population fewer than 4000.’ Bail reform passed at the state level in January 2020, eliminating cash bail for low level crimes, helped the process. At the time the de Blasio administration superficially closed two facilities, including one, the Eric M. Taylor Center, at Rikers. Yet with the prison population now ballooned back up to 6000 this has left thousands stranded in crowded intake centers for days when the requirement is for detainees to be housed in 24 hours or less. The city had to scramble to reopen the Taylor Center.

It has long been a fact that most of the detainees at Rikers are not actually convicted of crimes. In that sense Rikers serves just as much as a holding center as it does a prison. The state’s bail reform law, which was scaled back earlier this year in the midst of a few high profile incidents and media sensationalism, is meant to address this injustice. The decline in prison population since 2014 is indeed an accomplishment, yet more needs to be done. New York State Governor Kathy Hochul recently declared a state of emergency to allow remote court hearings to expedite paperwork and also signed the Less is More Act which eliminates incarceration as a sanction for most noncriminal technical parole violations such as missing a curfew or testing positive for drugs (Isa Abdul Karim was in Rikers for such a violation).

It is true that prisoner violence has increased in Rikers Island in recent years, perhaps the result of the decrease in population leaving a more violent remnant. Yet a prison population almost half of what it was a few years ago should still be easier to manage. Even with the large scale absences, the remaining officer-to-prisoner ratio is above the national average. Much more emphasis needs to be placed on mental health and job services both in and out of prisons as the U.S. has one of the highest recidivism rates in the world- more than 75 percent of released prisoners are arrested again within five years. The rate in Norway is only 20 percent. If one were designing a system to fail one would build the American criminal justice system.

Meanwhile the pandemic driven crime wave, which may well have been decisive in Eric Adams becoming the next mayor, has been in decline. Over the past four months, which included summer months when crime typically spikes, the number of homicides in the city has declined nearly 30 percent- all without any of the ‘law and order’ rollbacks that the Adams campaign claimed were so necessity. Though still above pre-pandemic levels, there is reason for optimism that the decline will continue as the city gets further recovers from the pandemic.

This only emphasizes the point that further reform is urgent. It is an open question whether closing or rebuilding Rikers is the ultimate solution. The plan to build four vertical prisons in city neighborhoods has drawbacks: smaller windows to prevent overlooking, outdoor space is limited. Early designs have emphasized accessibility to courthouses, as well as community gardens and social services. What should not be in question is the need to continue to lower the prison population of Rikers Island. The horror must cease.

Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City. He is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York (Zer0 Books).