A Factory of Despair: The Crisis at Rikers Island
by J Simpson
Ten miles from downtown Manhattan – across a long, skinny bridge known as the “Bridge of Pain” – one of the hardest, cruelest, most violent jails in the world can be found. With 10 buildings and the ability to house up to 15,000 detainees, it’s also one of the largest. On an early morning in August, over 800 prisoners of the Manhattan House of Detention for Men, commonly referred to as “The Tombs”, rioted, taking over the ninth floor and holding eight guards hostage until their grievances were addressed. These included the poor quality of the food, pest infestation, lack of access to the law library, lack of clean clothing, and irresponsible practices from the medical staff. These demands culminated in a series of public hearings, organized by Senator John Dunne, where inmates told a horrified public about sleeping on bare concrete floors with no blankets among roaches and rats, inches away from other inmates who were only allowed to shower once a week, if that, and rarely given clean clothes.
These hearings culminated in a 55-page report, titled “The Tombs’ Disturbance,” calling out the Commission on Corrections for “failing to utilize the powers it possessed to compel the city to correct the overcrowding and inhumane conditions in its institutions,” and providing practical 32 solutions that could improve conditions for both prisoners and guards alike.
The Long Island City branch of the Queen’s House of Detention exploded in an even more violent conflagration less than two months later, four days before the report could even be issued. The nearly 100-year-old facility was at almost twice its capacity, resulting in conditions “not fit for animals, never mind human beings,” as detainee Victor Martinez put it. On the third day of the standoff, prisoners released Alfred E Warren, a sympathetic Corrections Officer with a reputation for treating inmates decently, who told the press the hostages were “with the prisoners 100%.” He also said the Corrections Officers overwhelmingly agreed that there should be more Spanish-speaking guards, lower bail, speedier trials, more opportunities for inmates to better themselves, and an “inmate council” to help address prisoners’ concerns.
This was in 1970.
Sadly, little has improved in the 53 years since inmates rioted in order for their grievances to be heard. If anything, things have gotten worse due to the administration’s inaction and stonewalling. Rikers Island has been frequently referred to as a “humanitarian crisis.” it’s been found to violate inmates’ constitutional rights since the mid-70s, for everything from inadequate recreation periods to patterns and practices of excessive violence to inappropriate ventilation systems, resulting in “including foul air and extremely cold and unsanitary conditions in some city jails,” which the city resisted repairing for 22 years. “The struggle had raged since the 1970s, when, as Michael Mushlin, another former Legal Aid lawyer, recalled, the Department of Corrections position was simply to fight every improvement effort,” as journalists Graham A. Rayman and Reuven Blau report in their authoritative new history of Rikers Island, Rikers: An Oral History.
This new batch of controversies and outrages has reignited the movement to close Rikers Island entirely, which is now on track to close entirely by 2027.
Controversy During COVID
As we have seen, conditions have been abysmal on Rikers Island for over 50 years. Things have come to a head in recent years, soaring to new heights of violence and neglect, beginning with a catastrophic mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Initially, over 2,200 Correctional Officers were infected by the coronavirus, leading to massive under-staffing. Guards began to call out sick in record numbers, with unlimited sick leave or simply stopped showing up entirely. To make matters worse, the jail was splitting at the seams, with nearly 5,000 inmates at the time. An atmosphere of tension and paranoia exacerbated an already volatile situation. Over 1,500 detainees, who were deemed either low risk of committing another crime or at high risk of contracting the disease, were released to try and reduce the population, bringing the number of inmates to around 3,800. 21% of the population ended up infected with the coronavirus by 2021, anyway. Inmates began to self-harm in record numbers.
This was just the latest in a seemingly endless stream of controversies, many going back decades. New York City had recently paid out a settlement of $53 million to pretrial detainees who had been wrongfully held in solitary confinement. Three officers had recently been charged with covering up an assault on an inmate, casting light on the rampant corruption riddling Rikers Island. A continuous river of drugs and weapons flowed even faster into the facility, possibly smuggled in by staff, culminating in 2022 being the deadliest year in a decade.
The strain brought on by the coronavirus pushed Rikers Island’s already-tenuous system beyond the breaking point. The shortage of Corrections Officers, drew out the intake process from 24 hours to days or even weeks, with detainees being held in units without beds or enough cells.
Basic safety precautions within Rikers were nonexistent, as well, especially at the beginning of the pandemic. Social distancing was impossible, as inmates slept three feet away from one another. Sanitation was conducted by prisoners being paid $1 an hour to sanitize toilets. Hand sanitizer wasn’t allowed. Even soap was hard to get. Inmates wouldn’t get masks for months and, even then, had to use the same dirty mask for long periods of time, even though the administration had 200,095 masks on hand, according to Julia Solomons, a social worker from the Bronx Defenders, a non-profit organization that provides public defenders for low-income people in the bronx.
The staff shortage resulted in a slowdown in basic amenities and services, too, with some inspectors finding some areas covered in garbage and urine.
Deteriorating conditions caused a spike in suicides, with at least five inmates taking their own lives. At least three inmates died due to COVID-19, including Kevin del Rosario, a young man suffering from Asperger’s syndrome who was incarcerated near the beginning of the pandemic. It’s suspected the actual numbers are twice as high. Over 30 stabbings and slashings were reported in August alone, compared to just seven the previous year.
Humanitarian Crisis and Legislative Response
These disintegrating conditions have re-ignited the push to close Rikers Island entirely which has been in discussion since the late ’70s. The plan was first given serious consideration in 1979, championed by a deputy mayor named Herb Sturz, when an internal document gave a $351 million estimate to repair Rikers’ crumbling infrastructure.
Despite widespread outcries over the ongoing humanitarian crisis, even vocal critics of the prison system were oddly silent. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio did nothing except offer some tepid outrage, despite improving Rikers Island being one of his campaign talking points. His management of the situation, or lack thereof, even caused some critics to call for his resignation.
This response mirrors other officials concerned with prison reform. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, along with Representatives Jamaal Bowman, Jerry Nadler, and Nydia Velȧzquez, sent a letter to Mayor de Blasio advocating for Rikers Island to be closed. The letter reads:
“We strongly believe that those who are detained at Rikers should be immediately released and the facility shut down. It has become evident that the conditions at Rikers – which is overseen by the New York City Department of Corrections and receives federal funding from the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program – are deplorable, and nothing short of a humanitarian crisis. We believe that the conditions of the facility represent a gross mismanagement of those federal funds. As such, we believe that expanding the facility and hiring corrections officers will exacerbate the issue; and redirecting funds towards emergency medical support staff would be a better use of funds.”
The Timeline for Closing Rikers Island
The City Council had already voted to close Rikers Island before the pandemic. The jail will be replaced by four smaller jails in different boroughs, with new facilities planned for Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx. New York City is required by law to close Rikers Island by 2027. The jail needs to house less than 3,300 inmates at that time in order for that transition to happen. There are currently around 5,900 prisoners at Rikers Island, however, and projections predict that number could reach 7,000 by 2024.
In March 2023, New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams restated the council’s commitment to closing Rikers Island by 2027. This timeline remains in dispute, however. A recent public notice, posted in mid-March, indicates that the Brooklyn jail won’t be completed until 2029. Last month, Manuel Hernandez, the head of the city correction department’s investigation division, resigned over his handling of several cases involving excessive force, closing several cases and filing reduced charges. Rikers Island’s controversy clearly isn’t over yet.
The Impact of Rikers Island
Rikers Island is one of the hardest, most vicious institutions in the United States, with a legacy of brutality going back almost 100 years. Note that we’ve referred to Rikers Island several times as a jail. Rikers Island is not a prison – in many cases (including in New York itself), even a prison sentence is less harsh and more forgiving. Rikers Island is where people are sent when they’re awaiting trial, which can sometimes take months, especially when they can’t afford bail. This means the issues plaguing Rikers Island especially impact poor marginalized, and vulnerable communities, including minors, pregnant, and transgender women, as well as their families.
Presumption of Guilt and the Human Cost
In 2010, a 16-year-old from The Bronx named Kalief Brown was arrested for stealing a backpack, which he insisted he didn’t do. He ended up doing three years on Rikers Island due to his not-guilty plea, almost two of which were spent in solitary confinement. He was finally released in May 2013 and all charges against him were dropped. Despite his vindication, Brown ended up taking his own life as a result of the trauma he endured on Rikers Island. His family ended up receiving a $3.3 million settlement from New York City.
Tragically, Brown’s story is all too common. Pre-trial detention is a common tactic to get people accused of a crime to accept a plea deal. As In Defense Of, a website dedicated to explaining complicated legal matters, puts it when defining pre-trial detention, “The practice of detaining people charged with crimes, but not convicted. People arrested and presumed innocent are locked in jail until their case ends, or in rare cases, come up with the money for bail. Most people are detained pretrial because they can’t afford to pay cash bail, an amount of money paid to the court to get released that is supposed to serve as an incentive to guarantee a return to court.”
In a country where people are innocent until proven guilty, this means innocent people are being held with some of the most hardened criminals in the world and very little official oversight. It’s clearly an extensive and ongoing problem as New York City had to pay over $300 million to the families of the wrongfully detained.
Wrongful incarceration has lifelong repercussions. Those who have suffered from wrongful accusations face a number of serious and sustained mental health issues. 60% become paranoid and anxious; 50% become hypervigilant or antagonistic, and 53.3% feel less confident. They also become more likely to reject altruism or to help people.
People of color are especially hard hit by Rikers Island’s iniquities. 56% of Rikers Island’s population is Black while 33% is Hispanic. Far too many suffer from mental illness, as well, especially since the shuttering of mental hospitals.
This makes Rikers Island the enforcement arm of America’s police state, with too many of the Corrections Officers turning a blind eye to rampant inmate violence and engaging in excessive violence themselves. In far too many cases, doing a bit in Rikers Island is essentially extrajudicial capital punishment. As the Vera Organization, an activist group dedicated to ending mass incarceration, note, “waiting to go to court shouldn’t be a death sentence.”