Squalor. Trash on the floors. Inmates forced to stand in shit. A dozen deaths this year alone. The “inhumane” conditions at Rikers Island, New York City’s notorious jail complex, have deteriorated so gravely that members of Congress are demanding the White House and Department of Justice act “to preserve the civil rights of those incarcerated.”
An open letter, spearheaded by New York Rep. Ritchie Torres, and signed last week by New York City’s entire Democratic congressional delegation, is calling for “immediate federal intervention” to stabilize conditions at Rikers. Addressed to President Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland, as well as the directors of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, the letter demands a federal “investigation into the conditions of confinement” of Rikers detainees. (Read the full letter embedded below.)
“I no longer have confidence in the city’s capacity to ensure the safety of those employed or incarcerated at Rikers Island,” Torres tells Rolling Stone. “Rikers has long been a nightmare. It’s long been hell on earth. But the conditions are more hellish and more nightmarish than ever before.”
Rikers Island is a 400-acre complex located in the East River between the Bronx and Queens with a jail population of nearly 6,000. The complex, first opened as a jail in 1932, primarily houses defendants awaiting trial — either because they can’t afford bail or have been remanded to custody. It also incarcerates a smaller population of convicted individuals serving short sentences. Notoriously expensive, violent, and corrosive of detainee mental health, the complex is slated for closure by 2027.
For now, however, Rikers remains in operation, and conditions at the jail are shocking. The congressional letter decries “unacceptable” custody standards at the “dysfunctional” complex — citing reports of trash-strewn floors, broken jail-cell doors, and detainees housed “for prolonged periods in temporary spaces such as showers, at times standing in feces.”
The letter highlights the deaths of 11 people in Rikers custody this year — five of them suicides, consistent with what the letter describes as “an explosion of incidents of self harm.” But even those grim statistics are already out of date. A 12th death was recorded last week, when a 24-year-old who was jailed on a floating barge at the island complex was rushed to a local hospital and pronounced dead. (The cause of death is under investigation.) The city’s corrections commissioner, Vincent Schiraldi, told reporters he was “devastated to see that we have yet another death in custody,” adding he’s “determined to stop this heartbreaking trend.”
“Rikers Island has increasingly become a death sentence for those who have never been tried, much less convicted of a crime,” says Torres, whose congressional district covers much of the South Bronx. “If that is not a civil rights violation, I’m not sure what would be.”
Addressing Rikers’ danger to public health during the pandemic, the letter also underscores that the Covid infection rate in the jail is twice that of the city at large, deeming the complex “a breeding ground for viral transmissions.” The Congress members quote the jail’s chief medical officer, who recently wrote an extraordinary letter seeking outside help, describing Rikers as having experienced “a collapse in basic jail operations, such that today I do not believe the City is capable of safely managing the custody of those it is charged with incarcerating.”
While demanding justice for those jailed at Rikers, the congressional letter also highlights a “staffing crisis” that is endangering workers. It cites a rash of officers phoning in sick, with “1,789 of the more than 8,000 officers in the department” missing at least one day of work in the past month. This creates an undue burden on remaining jail staff, whom the letter notes are “mandated to stay at their posts for double and triple shifts.”
The Congress members criticize New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for not offering “urgent and immediate intervention” in the Emergency Rikers Relief Plan he released earlier this month. “The plan as proposed” is insufficient to “deescalate a very real crisis,” it says, citing with alarm that de Blasio’s intervention could “inhibit” the planned closure of Rikers.
On Monday, De Blasio made his first trip to the jail in four years. After a two-hour tour in which he did not speak to any detainees, the mayor told reporters, “We’ve got a lot of changes we need to make,” but offered no specific action plan. Torres calls the mayor’s actions “too little, too late,” insisting Rikers’ present state is the product of “malign neglect,” while adding: “The evidence is crystal clear that the city cannot be trusted to properly manage Rikers Island in the absence of federal scrutiny.” (In a separate congressional action, a trio of New York lawmakers including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has called on de Blasio to brief Congress on the crisis at Rikers. The squad member has also called for the immediate closure of the facility, writing that “the current conditions experienced at Rikers are inhumane, unconstitutional, and a public health crisis.”)
The congressional letter to the White House calls on the federal government to coordinate with the state and city of New York to “stabilize the current crisis” by imposing both “oversight and accountability.” The members write that there’s nothing short of a “humanitarian crisis” at Rikers: “We are neglecting to meet our responsibility to care for incarcerated New Yorkers with dignity and respect,” the letter insists, adding that “the federal government has the duty and capacity to step up.”