Rikers Island: “Humanitarian Crisis” with Dead Cockroaches, Urine and Feces, Plastic Bags in Lieu of Toilets, Lack of Food and Water; Guards Call in Sick to Escape Appalling Conditions, Covid Risk

There are many examples that show America cannot pretend to be a civilized country, and one of them is Rikers Island. The infamous detention center has been in crisis for year, and the situation has become visibly critical (no pun intended) as 12 inmates have died so far this year out of a total population of about 6,000. Mind you, no one is incarcerated at Rikers as the result of a conviction. They are instead being held either for having been charged with nearly always minor criminal act, awaiting a hearing, or for an allegation of a minor parole violation.

Rikers is getting some overdue attention after years of neglect becauese some New York Congresscritters demanded that Mayor Bill de Blasio Do Something after two inmates died in one week. The facility has gone into crisis due to half-hearted reforms stalling and as we’ll explain below, Covid producing both higher levels of incarceration as judges go back into “lock ’em up” mode due to rising crime rates, and effective staffing levels collapsing as guards call in sick, either out of Covid fears1 or simply loathing how a terrible job has gotten even worse.

Corey Stoughton, attorney-in-charge at the special litigation unit of the Legal Aid Society, describes Rikers as a 21st Century Newgate prison in a talk with New York Magazine:

For the benefit of those who might not be aware or following it closely, what is the current situation like on Rikers Island?

It’s hard to find the words to describe how bad it is right now on Rikers Island. I think most people understand that jails and prisons are not pleasant places. But this is a level of depravity and inhumanity that is really shocking to imagine happening in the greatest city in the world.

You have people who are warehoused in large rooms for days and even weeks at a time with no toilets or showers, defecating on the floor, urinating on the floor. Not getting access to regular food or adequate water. And for a population that has, really, an overwhelming number of medical and mental-health-care needs, not getting access to basic and necessary medical and mental-health care. And so that’s why we’ve seen [all the deaths] this year, two in the past week alone, and it’s because people who are sick can’t get doctors and die for lack of medical care, urgent medical care. And people are in mental-health crisis, self-harming and even dying by suicide, because basic protocols around mental-health screening and self-harm prevention are not being followed.

Rikers has long been one of the worst facilities in the US. Although there have been off and on calls to clean up Rikers, the horrific treatment of one inmate, Kalief Browder, gave impetus to reform efforts. Browder committed suicide in 2015, two years after having been detained for three years when the charge against him was eventually dropped. More detail from Slate in an interview with the New York Times’ Jan Browder:

Kalief Browder was a 16 year old who had been accused of stealing a backpack from someone in the Bronx. And he was held on Rikers Island for three years and spent much of that time in solitary. This was before a lot of the reforms around solitary confinement for young people went into effect or was even really discussed in a huge way. So he was pretty much tortured during his time there. He was assaulted by correctional officers, assaulted by other detainees. He was the victim of what became known as “the program,” which meant if you defied a correction officer, they would allow other detainees to assault you. And so there was video of Kalief Browder being badly beaten by other detainees.

De Blasio, who whines a lot, seems aggrieved that he’s getting no respect for what he’s done to fix Rikers, which has now been revealed to be inadequate. He led an effort to end solitary confinement for minors, and had gotten the population of Rikers down from peak levels of nearly 12,000, but that was also partly due to crime rates falling.

In 2018 (notice how long after after the uproar in the wake of Browder’s death) De Blasio announced an $8 billion plan to close Rikers and replace it with four facilities, each in one borough save Staten Island. But real estate interests residents went into NIMBY mode, delaying the planned completion date from 2026 to 2027.

Covid initially enabled reformers to cut the Rikers population further. Again from Slate:

The city’s plan to close Rikers is ambitious……These facilities are intended to be more humane holding places, closer to inmates’ own communities, with space dedicated to educational programs and big visiting areas….

Then the pandemic hit. And while COVID exposed all the ways inmates were at risk—because of inadequate hygiene and an inability to social distance—for a brief moment, for advocates, the pandemic presented an opportunity.

There became this very urgent push to empty the jails. You had the district attorneys throughout the city, the mayor’s office, the police department—it was all hands on deck trying to figure out who could be released safely back into the community… You also had bail reform in the background, which also helped in bringing the jail population to the lowest it had been since the 1940s. It dropped to about 3,900 people….

During the summer, you suddenly saw a spike in crime. And around the same time, there was also a quiet reversal of some of the reforms that had been made under the bail law earlier in the year, which, along with the effort to save people from dying of COVID, also led to people being released on certain offenses that were no longer bail eligible. But because crime went up, you had the police department and their unions now pushing this idea that it was because of bail reform or it was because people were released at the height of the pandemic, although there was no data to show any correlation. You had judges who then were, instead of sending someone to a rehab program or a program to deal with the nature of the crime that they’ve been accused of, now sending them to Rikers, because they don’t want to be the judge who let someone out who ended up committing a heinous crime. And so you saw this vision that you don’t have to incarcerate everyone for everything sort of explode.

As the building plans stalled, correctional workers’ representatives charge that the city allowed the already-decrepit Rikers to fall further into disrepair. Population increases made an already bad situation vastly worse. Staffers are regularly calling in sick, putting the ones that do turn up under an impossible work load. From ABC New York:

The city is blaming a dangerous understaffing problem, not because there aren’t enough correction officers on the payroll, but because nearly a third of the ones who do work for the city are routinely calling in sick.

The city has sued the officers’ union over alleged absenteeism.

“Not to speak to us, not to come here in four years and then blame us for the staffing crisis that he created? We’re tired of being scapegoated,” said Benny Boscio with the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association.

The union president is telling a different story – a story of a dangerous job in antiquated facilities and of a workforce ravaged by COVID and forgotten by a mayor intent on closing Rikers altogether…

Boscio said the mayor let the jail fall apart because of his “ideology of closing Rikers.”

De Blasio, who had not visited the facility in four years, got a Potemkin tour. Again from ABC New York:

[President Benny Boscio with the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association] said Monday’s tour was sugar-coated.

“You walk in there now you can smell fresh paint,” he said. “They moved the inmates out of the intake area and put them in another intake area. They didn’t show him what he needed to see.”

The mayor met with no incarcerated people Monday, he met with no correction officers, and he declined to say what it was about his visit that bothered him so much.

Contrast de Blasio’s view with what legislators who got the real tour saw (hat tip Tom H):

Two state legislators who visited Rikers spoke to CBS News:

ABC News gave another account of the horrific conditions:

There is another obvious reform to implement. Electronic monitoring. Nearly all of the accused who are released turn up for hearings. Ankle bracelets would reassure judges who worry about becoming scapegoats in a crime uptick. They also would be a lot cheaper, even before you get to the health risks to inmates and guards.

Finally, as bad as Rikers is, it is ranked as one of the ten worst prisons in the US. That means there are another 9 within hailing distance of awfulness. I wonder if there are large gaols in other advanced economies that like Rikers are more cesspit than holding tank.

____

1 Recall GM’s recap of a study published by the CDC on Covid in prisons:

https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7038e3.htm?s_cid=mm7038e3_w

Useful example of what happens in an contained population, in this case a prison

80% vaccination, and relatively recent too — half were 4-6 months from second dose, the rest less than that — resulted in 70% attack rate among the vaccinated (and 93% in the unvaccinated)

Attack rates in the 4-6 months groups — 89%

Moderna held the best — 40% attack rate. Pfizer at 81%, but it’s not clear if those are matched by time from second dose.

The union representing the correctional workers has complained of the lack of PPE.

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25 comments

  1. timotheus

    Another element of this nightmare is the gradual disappearance of mental health facilities such that Riker’s is now the default psychiatric unit for all of New York. A particularly glaring example is the attempt by New York Presbyterian/Columbia to close its inpatient psych unit in the Allen Pavilion in northern Manhattan and replace it with a (lucrative) spinal surgery center. Public opposition has postponed the phaseout but probably not saved the unit. People in psychiatric crises are now sent either to Westchester County or, if they start acting out in disturbing ways, get shipped to Riker’s where, as this article points out, they are almost guaranteed to get worse if they survive at all. “Nonprofit” hospitals are supposed to provide free or discounted care commensurate with their enormous property tax benefits, but any MBA can see that inpatient psych units are terrible for a hospital’s profits, er oops, revenues.

    Reply
  2. LawnDart

    Guard’s unions will resist any attempts to bring jail populations down.

    There was a diversionary program in Allegheny County about 10 years ago that was intended to move mentally ill inmates who were facing minor charges from the jail to a treatment facility where their illness could be stabilized pending evaluation by the court.

    That effort lasted less than a year and at no time saw more than 10% of capacity utilizied, as the jail simply did not make more than a token few referrals to the program. I believe it is estimated that 70% of the jail/prison population suffers from one or more mental illnesses at any given time, a number quite comparable to our lawmakers, I’m sure.

    Reply
    1. Felix_47

      The Twitter part said the ratio of guards to inmates was 7 to 3!! WTF?? Sounds like a make work program. Huge amount of taxpayer cash.

      Reply
  3. Cocomaan

    Would like to see AOC and other progressives give this some attention, instead of the squabbling over which lobbyist wins that’s going on on Capitol Hill.

    NYC is really going downhill. Sounds like Yves got out at the right time.

    Reply
  4. James Simpson

    During the summer, you suddenly saw a spike in crime

    So it went up quickly, and just as quickly it went down, which is what a ‘spike’ image would imply. Is that true? I thought there was a sustained rise in certain categories of offending. Perhaps I am wrong and NYC has levels of offending in 2021 similar to previous years.

    Reply
  5. Tom Stone

    I did volunteer work in California Jails and prisons for nearly two decades, mostly County jails.
    None were as bad as Riker’s although the horror stories about Old Folsom and Pelican Bay were very real.
    A LOT of the prisoners I came into contact with had mental health issues, frequently complicated by self medicating with alcohol and drugs.
    County Jails in California ARE California’s mental health treatment facilities.
    State prisons are another kettle of fish, run by CCPOA which is one of the most powerful lobbies in the State and utterly and viciously corrupt.
    The Correctional Officers self select for those jobs to a degree although in towns like Susanville it’s the biggest employer with the best pay and benefits.
    If you work as a correctional officer full time you are going to develop serious mental health issues no matter how stable you were when you started..

    Reply
    1. The Historian

      I worked as a CO at a women’s prison for a year and a half and you are so right that it is a hard job, but it is a job I learned so much about mental health from. And you are right – prisons are a dumping ground for the mentally ill. We had a serial killer and some gang bangers but the majority of people at my prison were there for mental health issues and drug offenses – and prison was the worst place to put them. Nothing we could do would make them better able to live in the outside world. We had one mental health counselor and she was fantastic but there was only so much she could do so the prison used chemicals, i.e., drugs called chemical handcuffs, to control the most seriously mentally ill.

      I had to get out of there because I began feeling like I was in prison, and when I worked there, we were very poorly paid -$8/hr, and I can remember working many 24 hour shifts simply because we were always so shorthanded.

      Reply
      1. Terence Dodge

        Thanks for the first hand, in person perspective. This is under the liberal wing of “our” political party, consider the scenarios if the conservative wing of “our” party has a shot at ( no pun intended ) “management”? PTSD is a non starter for the majority of the Republican persuasion perspectives, a weaknesses entertained by the liberals AKA democrats.

        Reply
  6. Phil in KC

    A third-world hell-hole in a supposedly first-world and world class city! Amazing, maddening, and very saddening all at once. Where are the “city fathers?” First rate cities once had citizens who, though not elected, demonstrated love and concern for their polity and their fellow citizens of all stripes. So who would that be in NYC these days? Could Bloomberg be moved to care? Any of the dozens of multibillionaires who made their fortunes on Wall Street? Or is the view from the 96th floor too grand to take in anything less than magnificent?

    It makes me think about my own city, and what is our equivalent of Riker’s (i.e., not an exact equivalence, but just what is our greatest humanitarian need). The deplorable conditions at the Jackson County Jail comes immediately to mind. And so I ask myself why am I not more involved in making things better? For I am not content to remain idle while my nation crumbles into some hellish state of decrepitude.

    Reply
  7. john

    It’s hard to take anything in this article seriously when it misrepresents the Kalif Browder case. From wikipedia:

    In 2009, Browder was charged with third-degree grand larceny. Police testified that he had crashed a stolen bakery truck into a stationary car while joyriding. At the age of 16, he was charged as an adult, which conformed to state law at the time.[5] He pleaded guilty but later said he was only a bystander. Browder was registered as a youthful offender and placed on probation.

    So he pleads guilty to stealing a truck, taking it for a joyride and then crashing it into another car. The punishment is don’t do it again and stay out of trouble, but if you get into trouble you will serve time for this grand larceny. The 2010 accusation of stealing a backpack was sufficient to trigger serving time for the grand larceny. It is worthy of debate if this is just.

    Most reporting neglects to mention this nuance and goes full propaganda proclaiming he was in Rikers for years on a misdemeanor accusation. Which renders the rest of the reporting worthless.

    Reply
    1. YankeeFrank

      I don’t think a 16 year old charged as an adult and subsequently left to rot in solitary at Rikers for 3 years because he went joyriding and hurt no one upends the OP narrative. He was not humanely treated, and the conditions described in the article are also inhumane. Its hard reading but it fits with every other nightmare of neglect, profiteering and outright incompetent management of NYS and NYC I’ve directly and indirectly experienced for years.

      Much milder than death, though very serious all the same, NYS has taken 6 months to hopefully soon start paying my unemployment. Louis Rossmann on youtube details exhaustively how NYC cannot answer basic questions about business licensing and inventory tracking rules, and fining businesses in lieu of answering. He also documented how under Cuomo, the homeless are being housed in what amount to garbage closets on Roosevelt Island at outrageous cost per unit, conveniently being run by a Cuomo family member’s “nonprofit”, the head of which is earning a salary of 3-4 hundred thousand per year and employing other family members as well. I’m sure our new Gov will get right on that after she fires 70,000 un-vaccinated HCWs and refuses them unemployment benefits. And we’ve come full circle in our brave neoliberal world.

      Its truly disgusting to see all the shiny ugly buildings for the rich going up everywhere while the bottom rungs of society collapse. The only hopeful thing I can see for this city is that since we all kind of live on top of each other and the rich need their worker bees nearby, they can only keep the spiking crime and desperation from ruining their brunch for so long.

      Reply
    2. Anon

      Yes… Rikers is objectively a ***hole, according to guards and prisoners alike… but the real problem here is semantic? Pedantic, much?

      Reply
    3. jr

      “It is worthy of debate if this is just.”

      Worthy of debate?! By what standard?! Debating the loss of property compared to a child being systematically beaten and quite probably raped over a three year stint in hell!?

      Reply
    4. KLG

      I do wonder, what would have happened to Tripp Browder for doing the same thing on the Upper West Side? And then later being accused of stealing a backpack from the gym at Collegiate School? Actually, no, I don’t.

      Reply
    5. JBird4049

      “The 2010 accusation of stealing a backpack was sufficient to trigger serving time for the grand larceny. It is worthy of debate if this is just.”

      It was three years waiting to be tried. He was never convicted of stealing the backpack, but only accused. If one’s probation can be considered violated merely by the accusation of stealing something, resulting in three years of imprisonment, without a conviction, or even a trial, something is seriously unjust.

      Reply
    6. Yves Smith Post author

      Wowsers, major reading comprehension problem. This was a subsequent arrest. He had not even been charged in court. He was detained pre-hearing. You act as if he’d been charged and that was why he was being held.

      Reply
  8. Jeremy Grimm

    Hypothetical question: Suppose electric power went out in NYC — or some other major metropolitan area — what would happen to the inmates in the jails and prisons?

    Reply
    1. Terence Dodge

      How long would the power be out, scenario changes. Back up generators are good briefly ( usually hours, not days, I have no first hand knowledge of Rikers ). Cultural denial blind spot.

      Reply
      1. Conrad Schumacher

        If they can’t keep up with cleaning and catering how good do you think the maintenance of the generators will be?

        Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full was partially set on a West Coast penal institution similar to Rikers. A character who shares my name is in there and escapes after an earthquake. He accidentally received a history of stoicism from the library and then lives as a stoic. I doubt the present inmates in Rikers get library books though.

        Reply
    2. Jeremy Grimm

      My thought was that a failure of electric power for a month and more would result in a lockdown in jails and prisons and the gradual cessation of all outside contact with the prison.

      Reply
  9. jr

    “There’s garbage everywhere, rotting food with maggots, cockroaches, worms in the showers, human feces and piss. Most of the toilets are broken so men are given plastic bags to relieve themselves in.”

    How long before this describes the living situation of the average American who is not in prison? It’s already here for the poors:

    https://www.politico.com/states/new-york/albany/story/2018/04/06/the-long-term-health-consequences-of-living-at-nycha-352931

    Reply
  10. Michael T Thomas

    I was aware that few people in Rikers were serving sentences since most are incarcerated there for months though “presumed innocent,” for lack of money bail –
    This is while they wait for their “speedy trials.”

    But I didn’t realize the figure was NONE of them.

    The only criminal that could arguably merit placement there would be trump and his horrible cronies.

    Reply
    1. Jeremy Grimm

      No matter what crime a person has committed, they remain human and deserve to be treated humanely. Society must remain humane despite the most egregious violations.

      Reply
      1. JBird4049

        Since too many don’t consider their fellow human beings as human, it might be a while before we get this humane treatment.

        Reply

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