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Rikers Island Detainees in Struggle

Rikers Island is the largest penal colony in the world, holding more than 19,000 prisoners on a 410 acre island. Most of them are New York City pretrial detainees not convicted of any crime. The number of detainees is expected to increase to as high as 25,000 in coming months as Republican mayor Rudolph Guiliani makes good on his campaign promises to "improve the quality of life" in New York City by locking up the homeless, street vendors, panhandlers, etc,

To make good on campaign promises to balance the city budget Guiliani has proposed over $31 million in budget cuts. These two factors have come together to make Rikers Island the focus of the most intense struggle in several years. Among the jail programs to be eliminated as part of the budget cuts are the jail's 900 bed drug treatment program, its 23 person grievance investigation unit, its food industry job training program and will lay off 897 jail guards and 400 civilian workers. The new staffing cuts come on top of previous staffing cuts, and increases in the detainee population, that has required most of the jail's 9,800 guards to work 16 hour double shifts three days a week. The city is now paying more than $ 110 million to the guards in overtime alone.

Since November 15, 1994, captives at the jail have staged strikes to protest proposals by NYC Mayor Rudolph Guiliani to cut vocational, drug treatment and counseling programs at the jail. About 2,000 prisoners refused to eat on November 19, according to a jail spokesperson. The prisoners' demands, reported in El Diario, include better food and medical care, reinstatement of the GED classes, reinstatement of social workers to pre-budget cut levels and the transfer of abusive guards who harass prisoners. Family members and supporters have been protesting outside the jail complex as well.

Because jail food workers were on strike, jail guards had to serve prisoners their food, the ones who would eat anyway. Three guards were suspended after they refused to serve food, one refused, one overturned a cart of food and a third complained of a back injury. A spokesman for the Correction Officers Benevolent Association was quoted saying the guards were "livid" at being ordered to perform "prisoners' work" which they claimed "undermined their authority." This authority was apparent when Commissioner of Correction Anthony Sehembri announced that a guard had been arrested smuggling contraband into the jail, in the form of razor blades and a knife blade, presumably for sale to prisoners. [Editors Note: Past issues of PLN have reported on the sale of firearms to NYC prisoners by jail guards.]

Robert Gangi, head of the Correctional Association of New York, a private prison watchdog group, was quoted by the New York Times stating "Absent a disturbance, the mayor will get all or most of what he wants." He noted that prison reform usually follows a riot "What's striking in this is that I can't recall when we've had an organized political protest by inmates about budget cuts coming down the pike. That is an unusual level of sophistication."

Gangi's quote displays an unusual level of ignorance about the detainees situation. Their protests are not based on abstract issues like proposed budget cuts but on very real overcrowding, brutality, dehumanization and a concomitant decline in services and basic living conditions. Detainees have reported to other local newspapers that they are fed irregularly and when fed at all, receive only white rice, white bread and water. Prisoners are being placed in unheated trailers, sent to yard at 4 and 5 AM and then having to lay in bed all day because there are no other recreation facilities. One detainee was quoted in the Revolutionary Worker: "The officers in there are too violent with the inmates. They stabbed one inmate, and no one knows who it was. This was a week ago [Nov. 20, 1994]. And yesterday, four officers beat up an inmate so badly that he's in critical condition .... The officers are so violent with them, you know, treating them like if they were animals." The prisoners have repeatedly tried to get their message out to the corporate media, such as the New York Times and television stations, to no avail. [Editors Note: In three large New York Times articles that we used as background for this piece not once was a prisoner or prisoners' family member quoted or contacted.] The prisoners' struggle continues.

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