Demonstrators call for the closing of the Rikers Island prisons as they protest outside of city hall in New York on Sept. 22, 2021. (Getty Images)

In just 10 months, 14 people have died while in police custody on Rikers Island, a 400-plus acre island that houses New York’s main jail, and one of the largest correctional facilities in the world. 

Rikers has been ordered to be closed by 2026 after a long advocacy campaign, but currently remains open, and the deaths have occurred as conditions at the jail have deteriorated, prompting one lawmaker to call it a “humanitarian crisis” and a “horror house of abuse and neglect.” 

“The level of crisis in the jails cannot be overstated. People are suffering and dying,” said Kelsey De Avila, the jail services director with Brooklyn Defender Services, noting that those detained are not receiving medical or mental health care, or even regular or sufficient meals. “They are living in filthy conditions, held in units surrounded by literal garbage. Toilets are broken and overflowing into living areas. People in custody—including those with no preexisting conditions—are experiencing rapid deterioration of their physical and mental health. With units going unstaffed, New Yorkers are left crying out for help while locked in a cell with no officer at their post.”

There are roughly 5,700 people awaiting trial in New York City, and most of them are housed on Rikers Island. Rikers Island has the highest ratio of correctional officers to people who are incarcerated in the nation. But over the last several months, the facility has seen an extraordinary number of employees call out sick, or fail to show up to work at all. On any given day, nearly 2,000 correctional officers are absent from work on Rikers Island—that’s one-third of the jail’s workforce. 

Local leaders say it’s these staffing problems that are to blame for the horrifying conditions at the jail. Mayor Bill de Blasio accused the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, the union representing officers at city jails, of supporting absenteeism. And in late September, the city filed—then dropped—a lawsuit against the union for condoning an illegal strike that put jail staff and people detained at the facilities in danger. For their part, the union denied that they’ve condoned absenteeism. In July, they filed a lawsuit of their own against the city, alleging officers were forced to work unreasonably long shifts in dangerous conditions. 

De Avila doesn’t buy this reasoning. Citing the remarkably high staff-to-incarcerated person ratio in city jails, De Avila says the problem isn’t finding more people to staff the jails—it’s getting people out of them. 

“Rather than pour additional funds into the already bloated department budget,” she said, “the city and state should instead use those funds on programming, resources, and housing, as is allocated in the budget, that will help keep people at home in the very communities that are overrepresented in this city’s jails.”

In addition to the physical conditions that people are subject to while incarcerated on Rikers Island, advocates are deeply concerned about the mental toll of those same conditions. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, an estimated 44% of people detained in jails across the country have a diagnosed mental illness. At least six people who’ve died this year in police custody have died by suicide. Most recently, 58-year-old Anthony Scott, who had autism and mental health challenges, died in a city hospital on Oct.18 after trying to hang himself while in police custody at Manhattan Criminal Court. 

According to the Board of Correction, which provides oversight for the jail, there have been 539 reported cases of self-harm in city jails from April 2021 to June 2021 alone. 

Nationally, suicide is the leading cause of death for people in jail, accounting for 30% of all deaths. People in prison are three times more likely to die from suicide than someone who is not incarcerated. And it doesn’t take long in prison for someone’s mental health to deteriorate. Nearly half of the people who died by suicide in U.S. jails between 2000 and 2018 died within nine days of being admitted to the jail. 

Just as for many people outside, the pandemic had a significant impact on the mental health of incarcerated people. Many programs that offered support to those detained were forced to stop in-person services and operate at a limited capacity, De Avila notes. 

“Many people lost access to vital and necessary treatment, including medication. Those who are currently incarcerated continue to decompensate,” she said, emphasizing that the city and state should be focused on reallocating resources to mental health services. 

In response to this crisis, officials have put together a patchwork of reforms and policy changes to mitigate the harm. On Sept. 17, Gov. Kahty Hochul signed the Less is More Act, which would prevent people with non-criminal parole violations from returning to jail. The legislation won’t officially go into effect until next year, though 191 people were released upon its signing. 

As Prism recently reported, Hochul announced that 230 women and trans people will be transferred from Rikers Island to two jails in Westchester County. This move to send people who have yet to be even tried for a crime has raised alarms for advocates. 

“They don’t see detainees as people,” said Anisah Sabur, a former Rikers Island detainee and leader of the Halt Solitary Campaign, told Democracy Now. “Moving someone who has not had due process from a city jail, where you’re detained, to a state-sentence facility is traumatic.” Instead, Sabur asked why the state would not choose to release those women into programs and services in New York City that could offer them support until trial. 

For Sabur and many others working for the lives and safety of incarcerated people, the answer to the crisis requires a shift in the justice system at every level. De Avila said it’s up to the prosecutors to stop seeking bail, the state legislature to advocate for meaningful reforms that would decrease the numbers of people impacted by the system, and the state to fund programs, resources, and housing that offer real support. 

“We urge prosecutors to stop seeking bail and judges to stop sending people to Rikers,” De Avila said. “We urge the state legislature to advocate for legislative reforms that will decrease the numbers of people whose lives are impacted by the criminal legal system. We urge the city and state to fund programming, resources, and housing.”

Ultimately for De Avila, the solution to the crisis in New York City jails comes down to one thing—decarceration. 

“People are suffering and dying, yet New York City’s jail population continues to grow,” she said. “It is essential that elected officials, judges, prosecutors, and other people in power do everything in their power to reduce the jail population.”

Montse Reyes

Montse Reyes is a writer and editor based in Oakland and raised in California's Central Valley. She enjoys writing about the intersection of race, gender and class, often as they relate to culture at large.