Thirty to 50 people sit crowded like sardines in a can at any given jail cell in Rikers Correctional Center awaiting trial, and none of them have been convicted of a crime. Photos of the inhumane conditions surfaced in October, reaffirming the “State of Emergency” that former Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi deemed “deeply troubling” in September of last year. A spokesperson from the Department of Corrections said conditions in the intake cells are no longer how they were in the October photos.
In a statement, they said, “Our new Commissioner Louis A. Molina is focused and committed to creating a safer and more humane environment for our staff and everyone in our custody. The previous poor conditions at the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, and Rikers Island, in general, were part of the failures from the previous administration. Last year, the Eric M. Taylor Center was reopened to serve as our new admission intake facility. We have a way to go, but we are working around the clock to obliterate the systemic problems at Rikers.”
But, just last month, video footage showed a gruesome “fight night” and gang rule, which led to one incarcerated person who was forced to participate being released because the Department of Correction had failed to protect him. In an interview with The New York Times, the person said conditions are far worse now than they’ve ever been.
“I don’t think there’s no fixing jail,” he said. “It’s going to keep getting worse because it has been going on for so long.”
Two months before the “fight night,” a video clip shows a person smearing the lens with butter to obscure what was happening. The person who was later released says three inmates then attacked him inside a cell. Five hundred doors were broken in one complex, causing New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams to call for emergency decarceration of the pre-trial detention center that houses more than 4,800 detainees on any given day. Now, the Black Attorneys of Legal Aid (BALA), local elected officials, advocates, impacted New Yorkers, and others plan to gather outside the gates of Rikers Correctional Center, which has been plagued by decades of mismanagement and dysfunction, to demand release of all people incarcerated at the infamous jail as part of the Rikers Release Rally on Feb. 28.
“I don’t want to pretend that it’s new in terms of the inhumanity that exists [in Rikers],” said Olayemi Olurin, a public defender at the Legal Aid Society. “But it’s been exceptionally bad over the last year and a half.”
Darren Mack, who is the co-director of Freedom Agenda, the leader of the coalition that forms the Campaign to Close Rikers, spent 19 months at Rikers when he was just 17 years old in 1992. This was decades before New York would pass “Raise the Age” legislation preventing 16 and 17 year olds from being tried as adults. He, like a majority of those in Rikers, could not afford his bail and was stuck in what he refers to as the last “penal colony” in the U.S. until his court date. Mack was there when the population at Rikers peaked at 21,000 and the annual intake hit 111,045.
“Rikers is managed through terror, through brutality,” Mack said. “The same thing that was plaguing Rikers Island then is plaguing Rikers Island now.”
Because Rikers is isolated geographically, Mack likens it to Alcatraz Island and a breeding ground for a “culture of violence.”
“You’re either predator or prey, and unfortunately, I had to exhibit a level of violence that I’ve never experienced in order to survive,” Mack said. “It changes people’s whole personality, their identity. That is basically how the New York City jail system has had an impact on young people for decades.”
Mack is co-organizing the Freedom Ride to Rikers and hopes the event will mobilize city council members and the city’s administration to focus on decarceration and meanwhile prevent more people from entering the jail system by utilizing programs as an alternative to incarceration.
“A number of things have to happen simultaneously so we don’t lose another life in the New York City jail system,” Mack said.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a 10-year plan during his first term to close Rikers by 2027, but the jail population has increased by 47% since spring 2020 despite 21% of the population testing positive for COVID-19 during the height of the Omicron surge in December 2021. The Rikers Release Rally, which Olurin helped organize, comes after 15 people died last year while incarcerated in Rikers or shortly after leaving—at least five by suicide—and conditions continue to worsen. With upwards of 50 people in one holding cell, there is no possibility for social distancing, and it puts them further at risk for violence, sexual assault, and other dangers.
“I’m an abolitionist, and I’m for the release of all people from prison. Prison is completely inhumane and not something that society needs,” Olurin said. “That being said, abolition is a dream of tomorrow. They’re not going to open the doors and release everybody. So, we want to prioritize decarceration of Rikers as soon as possible.”
Olurin says they would start with low-level offenders, technical violations, and elderly and immunocompromised people who are even more vulnerable to COVID-19 under the current conditions. Many of the people incarcerated in Rikers Island have never even stood trial or been convicted of a crime, and it is overwhelmingly comprised of Black and brown people, with 56% Black and 33% Latinx in 2020. Many of them simply cannot afford bail. According to reporting by the Village Voice in 2017, nearly three-quarters of pretrial detainees at Rikers were unable to post bail at arraignment due to poverty. A third of them were facing low-level misdemeanor charges, and another 15% were charged with drug felonies.
“Black or brown people are sitting there literally dying and getting sick there,” Olurin said. “If you don’t have any money at all, and you have no community, you literally live on the street, $500, $1,000, $2,000 is going to keep you locked up.”
Olurin organized the rally to provide people the opportunity to see Rikers up close. Organizers and community members will board buses in Brooklyn and travel to the detention center to demand the release of incarcerated people in the jail. Over the course of the past year, Olurin realized many people had heard of Rikers, but they may not have understood that the people sitting there had not actually been convicted of anything.
“I’m always trying to get people to realize how bad it is because the reality of prisons and jails are they tend to put [people] where others can’t see them,” Olurin said. “It’s a real out of sight, out of mind thing, and people have heard about Rikers, but they don’t actually know much about Rikers.”
Olurin hopes to begin decarcerating Rikers and free incarcerated people during this especially difficult period of time in the midst of the pandemic.
“People have been sitting in Rikers since before the pandemic started still waiting on their trials,” Olurin said. “Imagine the horror and the fear you felt learning about a global pandemic, but you feel it inside bars and you’re watching people around you die. We need to stop it.”