On Jan. 8, about 200 people incarcerated at Rikers Island began a hunger strike to protest the abysmal conditions at the jail. This is the second hunger strike by prisoners at Rikers during the pandemic. In the early days of COVID-19, incarcerated people protested about lack of PPE, inability to access medical care, and lack of adequate meals. We owe it to them to fight for the closure of Rikers without building new jails and for the immediate decarceration of people held there and in facilities worldwide.
The current hunger strikers describe increasingly dangerous conditions at Rikers, a facility that imprisons more than 5,000 mostly Black and brown people, many of whom are disabled, chronically ill, poor, or otherwise marginalized. Those held there are subjected to dehumanizing and unhygienic living conditions, where they’ve been forced to clean blood and feces from the floor and where mice and water bugs frequently wake them up. Others mention seeing black mold in the bathrooms and mildew on food carts. With winter, temperatures are dropping, and the hunger strikers’ unit is getting particularly cold.
At the end of December, while Omicron surged outside, prisoners—of whom only 38% have two doses of the vaccine—were getting infected with the virus at record speeds. Because so many guards have been calling out sick with COVID, prisoners have missed medical appointments, making them even more vulnerable to illness. This is just the latest emergency brought by the pandemic, as many have been held at Rikers for years without a trial as hearings get delayed due to COVID-19 restrictions.
When C first arrived at Rikers in August 2020, he was placed into a dorm with 30 beds lined up, reduced from 60 due to the pandemic. According to him, the reduction of beds in the dorms was because of prisoner demands, not because of the Department of Corrections trying to look out for the health of incarcerated people. Despite this change, he describes what would be considered dangerous conditions regardless of COVID-19.
“There were 30 men with four bathroom stalls to share.” In the middle of August in New York City, “we didn’t have any central air, but the windows were kept open, and there were these big fans they used to blow air around the dorm,” he shared. Based on his experiences and the historical reputation of the jail, C thinks Rikers should be closed.
Historically, organizers have sounded the alarm on the human rights abuses happening at Rikers Island. Protests on the outside and the inside have rich historical context and precedent. Mon M, an abolitionist organizer, reminds us that “[p]eople have been fighting to close Rikers since its origin … People have been rioting, striking, burning down cells, protesting, and more since the mid-20th century in opposition to Rikers, the NYPD, and the New York City Department of Corrections.”
These actions and efforts are the reasons why the number of people incarcerated in New York City dropped between 2000 and 2015 (without the construction of new jails, Mon points out). The Rikers Island Project Working Document was a report compiled in 1979, explaining the dangerous environment in Rikers. Since then, thousands of people have been subjected to the dangers, and hundreds have died—15 in 2021 alone, proving that Rikers is not fit to remain in existence.
“After a century, why should we trust a city that has ignored the pleas of incarcerated people and their loved ones to operate any jails?” asks Mon. Instead, she says, we should be focusing on “decarceration without compromise.” This is not an unrealistic goal. “At the height of the pandemic, New York City released 400 people, proving that with enough political will, numbers inside can be brought down enough to negate the need for new cages. We have an opportunity to set a precedent now that when disaster occurs, we free people—not punish them.”
The government has been criminally negligent of the situation at Rikers. As an anonymous organizer said, “Folks have been working for years on this, and the same horrible stories are written about the shitty conditions, the shitty politicians, and the same demands and abolitionist anti-fascist organizing efforts have been happening and are ongoing. Surveillance from the state makes this work and support of decarceration dangerous for outside and especially inside organizers and comrades. None of these demands have been met; only false promises and reneges where progress looks like Black fascists.” These promises include plans to close Rikers and open four new borough-based jails, for an obscene price tag of $8.7 billion—an affront to the demands of organizers who want to see Rikers closed without the investment of public funds into incarceration. Progress is being framed as a Black mayor who believes in solitary confinement and increased policing. As the government refuses to invest money into housing, COVID testing, and other necessary and life-saving services, it is integral to resist allocating these funds to further criminalize vulnerable New Yorkers.
When faced with the bravery of incarcerated protestors fighting for their rights, we on the outside must respond. According to Mon, the best way to do this is for folks to “be building long term with incarcerated folks, formerly incarcerated folks, and their loved ones—not just in this moment of crisis, but over time.” Because these problems are systemic, this fight is not going to be over in a month or two. However, she also mentioned ways to help incarcerated people immediately, such as donating to commissary fundraisers or bail funds.
“In addition to joining phone zaps, and demanding their local electeds support calls to free as many people as possible from DOC custody,” Mon says. “People need to be sending commissary, political education, doing mutual aid, and supporting the livelihood of Black incarcerated people in New York City overall—as well as their communities.”
Elected officials—namely Gov. Kathy Hochul—have the power to close Rikers, but not the will. Mon says it is up to the people to create the conditions for her to do so, as the hunger strikers at Rikers are attempting to do now.