Crisis at Rikers Island

Rikers Island is the notorious jail where New York City has kept people in prison since 1932. It has been an issue for years. However, in 2021 the institution rot and dysfunction turned into a total disaster.

Twelve Rikers 2021 inmates died, and five of them were killed in suicides, as October came to an end. It’s the largest death toll in Rikers since 2005. According to a New York senator, Rikers was visited by a man who tried to commit suicide in September. The jail was toured by a public defender. The Intercept that inmates in one segregated intake unit were locked in small showers and given plastic bags to defecate into.

The jail is now dangerously understaffed due to widespread, unauthorized absences of staff. Rikers, the chief medical officer, warned the New York City Council that they had witnessed “a collapse of basic jail operations in 2021, such that I don’t believe that the City can safely manage the custody and detention of those it is charged to incarcerate in its jails.”

A federal monitor showed widespread security lapses and failures to assist inmates trying suicide right in front of an officer at a U.S. District Court hearing in September. There was also a guard rotation that worked double- and triple shifts. Inmate-on–inmate violence and guard-on–guard assaults, as well as the use of force, have increased.

The monitor stated in an August 24th report that “this state of severely compromised safety has spiraled up to the point where there is a clearly risk of serious harm both detainees, and staff which generates high levels fear among both the groups with each group accusing the other exacerbating already difficult conditions.” Letter to U.S. District Judge Laura T. Swain. “Turmoil” is the natural outcome of volatile situations.

Bill de Blasio was able to tour the jail and said “The entire thing disturbs me”. Hizzoner didn’t intend to take on those who have made Rikers an inhumane place for many decades.

New York City is considering a plan to close Rikers permanently in 2027. However, the Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel or unusual punishments. It also allows for food, shelter and medical care to be provided to incarcerated persons. New York City must force Rikers not to violate this minimum standard of basic human dignity and keep it up until the closing date. The jail shouldn’t be open for any longer.