Countless words have been written over the years, many by this council, illustrating the barbarism of the Rikers Island prison complex and demanding its closure. The last entry came this week, in a tweet thread by New York State MP Emily Gallagher, who attended an elected officials tour and left in shock, calling the facility a “humanitarian crisis” and a “house of horror of abuse and negligence ”.
“There is garbage everywhere, rotten food with maggots, cockroaches, worms in showers, human feces and piss,” Ms. Gallagher wrote. “Most of the toilets are broken, so the men are given plastic bags to relieve themselves. “
“I have met several men with broken hands and legs that were not treated,” she continued.
So far in 2021, 10 Rikers inmates have died, at least four by suicide. More than half of inmates received mental health services and, last year, almost one in five inmates had been diagnosed with serious mental illness.
Meanwhile, prison officers are calling in droves of sick people – nearly 1,800 on Wednesday alone – leaving their colleagues to work double and triple shifts and effectively ceding control of parts of the complex to the gangs.
It’s everyday life in New York’s largest prison, despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s wish to close it permanently. Rikers’ replacement plan – possibly delayed by the Covid pandemic – involves an $ 8.7 billion effort to rebuild three obsolete detention centers in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan to make them more hygienic and safe. A prison is planned for construction in the Bronx. Community prisons have many advantages over being centrally located on a hard-to-reach island. Whatever critics on the left or right may cry out, New York is not going to be without jail cells. But he can approach incarceration in a much more humane way.
Mr de Blasio first promised in 2017 to shut down Rikers – the last time he visited the island. More than four years later and just a few months away from his tenure, the situation is as dire as it has ever been. In May, a report by a federal observer described a “widespread level of disorder and chaos” in the city’s prison system; within three months, the monitor filed an update to say that the situation had worsened considerably, with regular violent attacks against inmates and guards. “The city has completely lost control,” said Mary Lynne Werlwas, director of the Prisoner’s Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society.
On Tuesday, Mr de Blasio announced a plan to address the immediate staffing crisis by moving more correctional officers from the courts to Rikers and threatening to suspend those who skip work without an excuse. He also called on judges to release up to 250 people serving less than a year for non-violent crimes – even though he has the power to release them himself.
These are all stopgaps that fail to resolve the underlying problem: New York, like the rest of the country, is locking up far too many people for no good reason. Mr de Blasio likes to point out that the city’s prison population was about half its size when he took office, but it is still far too large: almost 6,000 people today. Taxpayers have to pay nearly half a million dollars a year to incarcerate each of these people – the vast majority of whom have not even had a trial yet. Others are locked up for technical parole offenses, such as forgetting to check with their supervisor. This is an absurd expense, especially when there is evidence to show that pre-trial detention, even for a few days, makes a person more likely to commit a crime, not less.
That number could be considerably lower if Mr. de Blasio and other politicians weren’t afraid of New York’s bail reform law, which passed in 2019, eliminating the bail. in cash for most arrests for misdemeanors and non-violent crimes. It was a long overdue solution designed to prevent people from being locked up just because they are poor. But the law was overturned before it could even have any effect, thanks to a relentless fear-mongering campaign by police, prosecutors and some lawmakers who exploited a few high-profile crimes – a tactic well-used to block any efforts to to make criminal justice fairer and more efficient. But opponents of bail reform ignore the basic facts: Crime in New York City is still far lower than it was in 1991, when the city’s daily prison population was more than three times what it was. she is today.
New York must give bail reform a chance to succeed. Albany is also expected to revive the Less Is More Act, which would prevent those on parole from being sent to jail for technical offenses. The legislature passed the law this year; Governor Kathy Hochul must complete the job her predecessor failed to do and sign it into law.
It is time for Mr. de Blasio to visit Rikers Island again and show inmates and guards, by his presence, that he cares about alleviating the atrocious conditions in which they live and work. They are also part of this city.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (SPEAK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/ressources.