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Living and Dying on Rikers Island: The Latest Installment

by Kevin Bliss 

When 55-year-old William Brown, a pretrial detainee from Brooklyn, suffered a medical emergency and died on December 15, 2021, it was the 16th death recorded for the year of someone incarcerated at Rikers Island, the sprawling and troubled New York City jail complex. Former Mayor Bill DeBlasio (D) targeted it for closure by 2027, a plan that is also backed by new Mayor Eric Adams (D).

But Adams put himself at odds with 29 members in the majority of the 51-member City Council who not only back the closing of Rikers but also DeBlasio’s measure to discontinue using solitary confinement, which took effect on the former mayor’s last day of office on December 31, 2021.

“They better enjoy that one-day reprieve,” Adams warned, “because Jan. 1, [prisoners are] going back into punitive segregation if they commit a violent act.”

The majority councilmembers replied in a statement: “New York City will never torture our way to safety.”

The dust-up has those who want to close Rikers Island nervous about the new mayor’s commitment to the plan. It also comes just over a week after a city judge, April Newbauer, ordered the release of an unnamed Rikers prisoner on December 22, 2021, because DeBlasio and Commissioner Vincent Shiraldi of the city’s Department of Corrections (DOC) “utterly failed the public as well as this [detainee] by ignoring the looming threat of a crisis at Rikers Island, by delaying emergency measures as staff shortages increased, and by not adopting an ‘all hands on deck’ approach to this entirely foreseeable crisis.”

That crisis included “squalid conditions” and “rampant violence,” as well as “a lack of essential services such as food and water” for the detainee, who was held in a crowded intake cell in October 2021 for three days, far longer than the statutory limit of 24 hours.

There the detainee was brutally assaulted in an incident that attackers shielded from a security camera by throwing a towel over it for two hours—something the judge said that staff should have caught after a few minutes.

The detainee was then moved elsewhere in the short-staffed lockup because gangs had run of the cellblock, reportedly limiting access to food and water and holding a “fight night” on October 19, 2021, at which guards looked the other way while prisoners beat one another for gang members’ entertainment.

“For years,” reported the New York Times on December 31, 2021, “the least experienced officers” have been left “in charge of detainee dorms and cells, posts that are critical for keeping order” but which more experienced guards view as “punishment posts to be avoided.”

Meanwhile an investigation is underway into the latest death at Rikers, that of William Brown. A cause of death has been determined for all but one other prisoner who died at Rikers in 2021, including two who succumbed to COVID-19 and another six who committed suicide. Five of the six remaining deaths could plausibly be attributed to natural causes, except for a confirmed fatal drug overdose. And then there was Thomas Earl Braunson III.

Braunson, 35, had just become a father three months before his April 2021 arrest on a shoplifting charge and subsequent parole violation. After spending three days in intake without proper bedding supplies or food, he was shipped to a permanent housing area in the Eric M. Taylor Center (EMTC) on Rikers Island. A prisoner in the unit with him later recalled for investigators that Braunson seemed to be suffering from drug withdrawal. Yet he received no medical attention. On the morning of April 19, at 8:30 a.m., he was found lying dead in a pool of his own vomit and blood.

“His world had changed,” insisted his girlfriend, Trisha Alam. “Vinessa [his daughter] became the focus of all he said and did. He was going to come home and help with the baby.”

The family now seeks answers, wanting to know how this could happen. Calling his death “careless, reckless, and negligent,” they claim the jail failed to adequately screen Braunson for signs of drug use and withdrawal. A report prepared for the New York City Board of Correction (BOC) four days after his death boosted that argument, documenting “horrible conditions in the EMTC intake pens, where Mr. Braunson spent several days before his death,” believed to have been caused by a cocktail of drugs containing fentanyl, which he may have obtained while inside the jail.

For many who die on Rikers Island, however, the tragedy doesn’t end there. Those whose remains are not collected are passed off to prisoner grave diggers. No other work detail for Rikers Island prisoners pays more than 62 cents per hour, except for those who receive $6.00 per hour to bury the dead at a mass gravesite on Hart Island, a few miles up the East River.

The Hart Island public cemetery was first used in 1869 and now holds over 1 million deceased. It is so full of the unclaimed, unidentified, and unwanted cadavers that interment of multiple bodies in the same grave is allowed. The city’s Department of Corrections (DOC) began using prisoners to dig graves there after an increase in deaths at the jail complex during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prisoner rights advocates call it an abuse of prison labor. But the city found it difficult to fill these positions, leading to the exploitation of prisoners who are also exposed to potential infection handling bodies of COVID-19 victims. 

An ex-prisoner from Rikers Island, Vincent Mingalone, worked the burial detail while incarcerated there, and he said his job was to bury the dead, map the burial sites, and mark the names on the caskets. He added that he was always curious about who it was he was interring.

“I must say, we did take pride in what we did and we knew we were the only ones there for these people,” Mingalone said, “and you know, it’s just always intriguing that there’s so many stories, like we didn’t know this person, we didn’t see this person, they’re inside of a box.”

Not Fit for Man nor Beast 

After it was held in the 1660s by a Dutch settler, Abraham Rycken, the 90-acre island was expanded to 415 acres by New York City, which took title in 1884, eventually opening the prison in 1932 next to a pig farm. A portion of the island was later converted to a landfill. When the jail complex was added, inspectors warned of potential health hazards from dump fires, as well as large infestations of rats and poisonous gasses used to control them.

Additionally, problems that had plagued the previous jail located on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island)—drug use, corruption, violence, and gang activity—followed the move. During construction in the early 1930s, it was touted by the Daily News as the new model for modern jails. Today, abolitionists (those who wish to completely eradicate the jail complex and defund the city’s police department) consider it a failure both in design and operation. 

Rikers Island is a ten-building jail complex with two towering solitary confinement units that dominate its entrance. It has several vast parking lots, infirmaries, a power plant, and a barge docked to help control overcrowding. Historically, it has held anywhere between 4,000 and 22,000 detainees and prisoners. Anyone sentenced in the city to a year or less serves that entire time on the island; all others are moved upstate to one of the state’s prisons.

Most of the prisoners are pretrial detainees from low-income communities who cannot afford bail, predominately people of color caught up in this discriminatory practice. Delays in the court system could alter their stay at the facility from a period of months to a period of years. 

Rikers Island has long had a reputation as one of the most violent prisons in the United States. Prisoner advocates, such as Legal Aid Society’s Corey Stoughton, blame a current and unprecedented crisis of overcrowding and staffing shortages for bringing the jail complex to the forefront of the news. 

In a system that is inherently racist, focusing on “broken-windows” policing, targeted stop-and-frisks, and over-patrolling low-income communities—which are also often communities of color—extreme levels of violence in the city’s jail system have become expected.

When detainees first enter the jail complex, they are placed in a filthy, overcrowded holding cell, denied bedding, showers, medication and even food, sometimes for days on end. They are not able to receive visitors, attend court hearings, or plan their defense with an attorney consultation. Many cells do not even have functioning toilets, so prisoners and detainees are provided cartons and other containers to urinate or defecate in.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul (D) declared a state of emergency at Rikers Island on September 28, 2021, due to deteriorating conditions that were also the subject of a federal court order issued the following day.

Although Hochul did not release anybody detained within the facility, the governor did provide for electronic court hearings to alleviate the burden on the DOC transport infrastructure, which has been crippled by chronic guard absenteeism. Backed by a powerful union, “a third of the uniformed work force has been out” from work, according to the New York Times

A consolidated federal class-action lawsuit settled in 2015 imposed guidelines to ensure safer and more humanitarian conditions in the jail complex and established a federally appointed independent monitor to supervise their implementation (see sidebar on p.14). But the monitor, Steve J. Martin, has consistently reported that the culture of abuse prevalent at Rikers has not yet been affected by any of the court-ordered changes.

In fact, incidents of violence have spiked, including those against prisoners by guards. These injuries reflect a propensity for head blows and use of chemical agents. Martin’s report called this is “nothing short of an emergency posing an immediate threat.”

From 2016 to 2019 the annual number of use-of-force incidents by guards at Rikers Island increased from 390 to 600, a rise of 54 percent. This increase continued even as the jail population declined due to reductions after the COVID-19 crisis began in March 2020. As a result, the number of use-of-force incidents per prisoner doubled.

Martin’s May 2021 report stated that there existed a “pattern of unprofessional conduct and hyper-confrontational behavior by staff.” U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who is presiding over the case, called the findings a great concern.

With the COVID-19 pandemic and staffing shortages, conditions in the ten-building facility have fallen into irredeemable disrepair. Trash litters the hallways. Vandalism dominates the cell blocks. Prisoners cannot attend programs, religious services, or recreation. Gang violence prevails throughout the compound, with rival gangs running the cell blocks and controlling any food that comes in, sleeping arrangements, and even intake of new prisoners. Guards are no more above corruption than are prisoners, recent examples of which include:

• Guard Travis Simms, 33, who was arrested in October 2021 on charges of smuggling a razor blade to a detainee;

• Guard Johnny Chiles and former guard Darius Murphy, both 36, who were arrested and charged in February 2021 with smuggling marijuana into the jail;

• Six guards who were charged in January 2020 with taking bribes to smuggle drugs to prisoners; the six were Darrington James, 30; Patrick Legerme, 29; Aldrin Livingston, 31; Michael Murray, 28; Angel Rodriguez, 23; and Christopher Walker, 28.

The corruption extends back over a decade, when guards were alleged to be employing gang members to help enforce discipline in a cellblock housing youth offenders. Dubbed “The Program,” the group acted as a hit squad that meted out retaliation on behalf of guards. It was eventually exposed after the 2008 beating death of 18-year-old Christopher Robinson, allegedly a member of “The Program” who stepped out of line. Two fellow prisoners were charged and convicted in his fatal assault, along with three guards who were convicted and sentenced in 2012 for assault or attempted assault: Michael McKie, who got a two-year term, as well as Khalid Nelson and Denise Albright, who each got one year. The city also paid $2 million to Robinson’s mother to settle a wrongful death suit she filed. [See: PLN, Nov. 2012, p.38.]

It was this type of excessive use of force that prompted the Nunez class-action suit against the city. Nonetheless, incidents of violence continued. In the five months before the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) joined the suit in January 2015, there were 62 serious injuries recorded from use-of-force incidents. A total of 98 deaths occurred within the five years preceding that, with only 15 of them due to improper medical treatment.

Referred to as a “house of horrors” by state Sen. Jessica González-Rojas (D-Queens), Rikers Island has been visited on many occasions by politicians, lawyers, and advocates. Just recently four state senators and seven city council members toured the facility with the city’s Public Advocate, Jumaane Williams. González-Rojas said the buildings were overcrowded and stank from puddled urine. At the initial intake area, a man with a sheet tied around his neck jumped from the bars trying to hang himself. The party described the complex as inhumane and full of dangerous and illegal conditions.

Feces and food were strewn across the floor. People wrapped themselves in plastic bags just to keep from rolling in the filth while they slept. Several prisoners had health conditions or appeared infectious but were not given access to medical treatment or medication. They had been denied food for days. Water had to be drunk from hands cupped under a sink faucet, and showers were non-existent.

“Starvation, torture, violence, no medical treatment for physical or mental health, is not a recipe for rehabilitation or safety,” stated González-Rojas. “It is a recipe for violence and continued violence on our streets.”

Council member Keith Powers said, “…for me, looking in, you just had a human rights crisis right before your eyes and it’s a crushing and overwhelming moment when you see that with your own two eyes.”

Jeffery, a former prisoner at Rikers who withheld his last name, stated, “It looks like a slave ship in there.” 

González-Rojas echoed that theme and spoke of the stench of the place, calling it “the smell of death.”

The managing director of the Neighborhood Defender Service, Alice Fontier, said she could “feel” the stench in her eyes. Co-director of Freedom Agenda and former prisoner Darren Mack stated that the city could not keep people alive at Rikers, and it should therefore shut the facility down. 

An Ounce of Prevention 

Dr. Homer Venters left Rikers Island as head of New York City’s Correctional Health Services in 2017. He said his time at Rikers left a lasting impression on him.

“What’s important to consider about jail settings is that they are incredibly dehumanizing, and they dehumanize the individuals who pass through them,” he stated. “There is not really a true respect for the rights of the detained.” 

He recently authored a book, Life and Death in Rikers Island, describing the prison’s subpar medical care and its propensity to depend upon the abusive use of solitary confinement to discipline prisoners. He said the two largest buildings—those that dominate the front of the complex—are both used for solitary confinement, where guards send detainees and prisoners for the slightest disrespect. Many who already suffer from some form of mental illness are then exposed to conditions which were proven to increase the risk of self-harm by 700% in a 2014 peer-reviewed study published by American Journal of Public Health

With the pandemic and staffing shortages, conditions in solitary confinement are even worse than for the general population. Sewage overflows from clogged toilets. What little recreation time prisoners are allowed is denied them. Many are not able to receive essential medications, some of which are life-sustaining. Prisoners quickly decompensate (deteriorate under the stress), contributing to the ongoing violence in the complex.

Long before the pandemic, New York University Psychiatrist Dr. James Gilligan reported that Rikers had well over 1,500 prisoners who had some form of serious mental illness. That September 2013 report stated that solitary confinement could be detrimental to these individuals, while also causing symptoms of mental illness to appear in even the healthiest of prisoners. He said the nation’s corrections departments had a “misunderstanding of human psychological behavior,” which “has led to the problems that many facilities are facing.” 

Prisoner advocates agree that the indiscriminate use of solitary confinement is responsible for a number of violent incidents that plague Rikers Island. In 2013, the complex recorded 3,285 uses of force among an average daily prisoner population of 11,700. That translates to one incident for every three to four prisoners. Three years prior to that, use of force incidents averaged one out of every ten prisoners. That’s a huge increase, and the number has been steadily rising since. In 2014, the Associated Press reported that Rikers Island guards averaged 11 use-of-force incidents each day.

Head injuries were common despite the fact that guards receive training that emphasizes avoiding blows to the head. Of the 62 serious injuries to prisoners recorded at Rikers between August of 2014 and January of 2015, head injuries accounted for 70%. Violent incidents between prisoners did not record half that number of head injuries. The most common injuries to guards were broken hands from closed-fist strikes.

Venters stated that prisoners were not receiving medications properly because they were constantly being moved by guards, who failed to keep accurate records. He attempted to institute a new system where prisoners wore wristbands which were scanned, automatically updating the system each time they were moved, but this system depended on the guards to scan the wristbands at each move, which they still failed to do. It became next to impossible to keep track of prisoners who needed medication delivered, even life-sustaining medications. Venters said the only way medical personnel would know when a prisoner missed his essential meds was when something serious happened to him or her.

With prisoners living in close contact in the overcrowded jails and their poor ventilation systems, Rikers Island was hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than the city at large. The jail complex tallied 91 positive cases for every 1,000 prisoners as of April 2020, while citizens of New York City recorded 16 cases out of every l,000. By that point, 365 prisoners, 783 guards, and 130 medical staff had tested positive for the disease. The prisoners’ daily average positivity rate was 4.36 compared to the national average of 3.92.

Yet even by September 2021, only 36 percent of the prisoners in the complex and 37 percent of DOC employees had been fully vaccinated against the disease. Dr. Robert Cohen, a board member of BOC, which oversees DOC, said that decarceration was necessary for the safety of both prisoners and guards.

“The current conditions are resulting in a rapid increase in COVID-19 infection rate in the jails,” he declared. “Previously effective control mechanisms such as isolation and quarantine will not be possible because of the Department’s dysfunction and overcrowding.” 

Paul Wright, Director of the Human Rights Defense Center, publisher of PLN, joined Unauthorized Disclosure podcast co-host Kevin Gosztola on Radio Sputnik’s Loud and Clear broadcast on April 2, 2020, to discuss the impact of the disease on Rikers Island. Noting that the infection rate was eight times higher than the infection rate of New York City and 78 times higher than that of the United States as a whole, Wright said this was not the first disease to devastate the prison, where other infections have previously found fertile ground, including Legionnaire’s Disease, Hepatitis C, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis. But the co-hosts agreed that the prison was completely inept in its current design and operation to deal with these types of crises, and never had anyone done anything to correct these problems.

“The facility has long had lots of problems…related to brutality, corruption, and, of course, medical care—that’s even at the best of times,” Wright said. “Generally, the lives of the guards or the staff are much more valuable from the perspective of the people running these places.”

In September 2021, medical officials warned that they could no longer guarantee the health and safety of the prisoners held in the facility. That was six months after tallying 12,914 missed medical appointments in March 2021 because guards were “either unavailable or uninterested in making the trek through a maze of security checkpoints,” according to a report by Gothamist. Those same officials called for the Governor to release all of the detainees and prisoners and take the prison out of city control.

Trouble Through Torts

Litigation against the city has been prolific over the past decade, with numerous actions against guards for violence and against medical staff for malpractice swamping the court system. Wrongful death claims have cost the city millions.

• In January 2021, the city agreed to a $1.65 million settlement with the family of Casey Holloway, a 35-year-old fatally strangled by a fellow prisoner in the jail’s mental health unit two years earlier. [See: PLN, Aug. 2021, p.32.]

• In December 2019, a jury awarded $3 million to the family of Eva Lucky, a 45-year-old who died of an untreated asthma attack at the jail 17 years before. [See: PLN, Nov. 2020, p.45.]

• In January 2019, the city agreed to pay $3.3 million to the family of Kalief Browder, 22, who hanged himself in 2015, after a three-year stint in Rikers—two years of which were spent in solitary confinement before all charges against him were dropped and he was released in 2013. [See: PLN, Apr. 2019, p.54.]

• In September 2016, a $5.75 million settlement was reached with Beverly Griffin, who filed suit after her son, Bradley Ballard, died at Rikers.

The 39-year-old Ballard, who was mentally ill and a diabetic, was arrested for a parole violation and then languished in solitary confinement for six days without receiving his required medication—all for dancing provocatively in front of a guard. A State Commission of Correction (SCOC) report revealed that Ballard went 11 days without receiving his insulin, despite the fact that cameras showed wardens, guards and medical staff visited Ballard’s cell no less than 57 times over the six-day period without offering any assistance as his health deteriorated.

On the day he died it took medical staff an hour and a half to respond, and then guards directed prisoners to go in and gather Ballard from the pool of his own urine and feces without proper protective gear to place him on a gurney. The SCOC report concluded that if he had “received adequate and appropriate medical and mental health care and supervision and intervention when he became critically ill, his death would have been prevented,” adding that “[T]he events that caused Ballard’s death were directly caused by the compounded failures of NYC DOC and its contracted medical provider.” [See: PLN, Jan. 2017, p.54.]

Other claims have also cost the city, going back to July 2012, when Jahmal Lightfoot filed suit against Rikers’ chief of security, Eliseo Perez, Jr., claiming he ordered guards from his Special Unit to take Lightfoot to an empty cell and “knock his teeth out” because his pants were sagging around his waist. The prisoner was beaten so badly that he had to be transferred to Bellevue Hospital for two fractured eye sockets and a broken nose.

“He has boot marks on his face, his bone structure is messed up, his breathing, his back, they just disfigured him,” said his brother Kareem Burton. “You can’t even recognize him.” 

Guards stated that they had taken a razor from him, but video footage showed the razor was taken from a prisoner not even near the incident. [See: PLN Feb. 2014, p. 56.]

Equally concerning are suits that highlight the depth of corruption and misconduct at Rikers Island. Take the case of Jerome Murdough, 56, a homeless veteran arrested in February 2014 after he sought shelter from the cold in a public housing complex in Harlem, only to bake to death in a Rikers cell where staff left him unattended for hours while a broken heater raised the temperature above 100 degrees. His mother received a $2.25 million settlement from the city in October of that same year.

There is also the death of Ronald Spear, 52, a pretrial detainee fatally beaten in the prison infirmary in 2012 by a guard, Brian Coll. Spear’s family settled a lawsuit with the city in 2014 for $2.75 million. Coll, 48, was sentenced in 2017 to a 30-year prison term for the attack.

Before that was the 2012 suicide of 25-year-old Jason Echevarria, who died in agony after swallowing a soap packet while a guard did nothing. The guard, former Cpt. Terrance Pendergrast, was sentenced to spend five years in prison and pay a $5,000 fine after his December 2014 conviction on charges of deliberate indifference to Echevarria’s medical needs.

In July 2021 the Correction Officer’s Benevolent Association (COBA) filed suit against the City for fostering inhumane working conditions—conditions that many believed existed solely due to the number of guards calling out sick every day.

On September 20, 2021, Mayor de Blasio counter-sued COBA and its president, Benny Boscio, Jr., for what de Blasio claimed was a coordinated and illegal work stoppage. He stated that COBA members were engaging in a sick-out in an effort to show their necessity at Rikers Island and secure more employees and higher wages. The union was also demanding an end to forced compliance with the Nunez decree.

De Blasio called for the court to restrain the union from striking and asked for punitive damages of $1 million for each day of the work stoppage. But two days after he filed the suit, the mayor caved and dropped it. By November 2021, Gothamist was reporting that “nearly a third of the [DOC]’s uniformed staff is unavailable to work with incarcerated people.”

The legal wrangling was reminiscent of an August 1990 incident in which rank-and-file guards blocked the bridge cutting off all access to Rikers Island. Fighting ensued between guards and emergency medical teams trying to enter to provide medical assistance to prisoners where needed. Then the union was protesting the restriction of violent means to control the prison population. And the union won. Any gains in the limitation of use-of-force guidelines and elimination of reporting loopholes were lost, and the newly enacted Taylor law’s fine for union work stoppages was no longer enforced.

Worse, when prisoners rebelled after two days of suffering from the lack of staffing, guards took it as an excuse to storm the prison and beat prisoners with impunity. Afterward, blood was slick on the walls and floors of the cellblocks. Over 120 prisoners were seriously injured with 81 of them receiving head wounds. The action secured the guard’s right to violently oppose prisoners for decades to come.

After de Blasio withdrew the city’s suit against COBA, the union released a pedestrian statement claiming it did not condone absenteeism as a means of work stoppage. That was apparently all it took for de Blasio to relent. Yet, daily sick-out levels remain unaffected.

Meanwhile Judge Swain ordered new remedial measures on August 14, 2020, and again on September 29, 2021. Now, in addition to installing more cameras and developing policies restricting the use of force, DOC must also speed up prosecution of disciplinary actions against guards and assign senior supervisors to oversee captains. See: Nunez v. City of New York, USDC (S.D.N.Y.), Case No. 1:11-cv-05845-LTS-JCF.

Litigation has cost DOC more than its annual budget of $1.18 billion can cover. Its health care providers are contractually indemnified from these suits, so DOC must cover all of their costs as well. And since DOC is funded by taxpayers, effectively the citizens of New York City are being held responsible for the actions of the jail’s guards and medical personnel.

Reforming Bail Reform 

In January of 2020, New York City passed pivotal bail reformation laws. Influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, it legislated that only certain crimes would be bail-eligible, and all other cases would see the defendant released on his own recognizance. Additionally, those incarcerated for parole violations would not be subject to bail.

The purpose of bail is simply to ensure a defendant returns to court for the resolution of his or her case. Courts have several alternative means to accomplish this goal, such as supervision or electronic monitoring. The new law required that whatever means was set must be the least restrictive possible and that the courts could not consider the dangerousness of the defendant when making this determination. Only with certain serious crimes was a judge allowed to consider the strength of the state’s case, the defendant’s criminal history or past appearance failures. 

These new bail reform laws helped to reduce prison population at Rikers by 45 percent. Nonetheless, within three months most advances made in bail reform had been rolled back. The jail complex’s population was down to 4,000 and dropping when the new law’s opponents began sensationalizing news reports on crime.

“Let’s let all the criminals out and let crime create total mayhem in New York City,” Boscio rebuked at a press conference. “Eleven shootings a day, babies getting shot in Times Square, and they want to release more prisoners?”

In April 2020, the City Council was persuaded to abolish many of the reforms it had just enacted. The original reforms allowed cash bail only for the most violent felonies and certain non-violent felonies. The changes added other crimes and circumstances to this list. A judge could now require bail for second-degree burglaries where the perpetrator entered the living area of a home, as well as for sex trafficking offenses, promoting obscene sexual performances of a child, assault, vehicular assault, and any charge alleged to have caused the death of a person. Bail could now be set based on factors of a person’s criminal history or if a second crime involving a specific victim was committed after release on earlier charges involving the same person.

Previously, judges had only a small range of conditions they could set for defendants released before trial, such as supervision or travel restrictions. Now judges can order defendants to surrender their passports, avoid contact with witnesses or victims, or participate in mental health or drug addiction treatment. They could require a secured bond from family or friends, or even demand a property bond.

Bail has long been decried as racist and classist. It has been equated with holding someone for ransom, and now—given conditions at Rikers Island—it is also being called a potential death sentence. Legal Aid Society attorney Amanda Jack joined others to ask the court not to consider whether the defendant was a threat to society, but whether today’s society in prison was a threat to the defendant.

“I am demanding the release of every person who comes before this court in recognition of their risk of death and serious harm in city jails,” stated Jack. “Sending a person to any city jail is a potential death sentence.” 

With the first reform law, along with the move to close Rikers and releases due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the city’s jail population dropped to a decades-long low of 4,000 prisoners. But today, after the reform rollbacks, the population is once again at 6,000 and climbing.

It is a judge’s discretion to set bail in any case. Still statistics show that judges follow the prosecutor’s recommendation for bail in 63% of cases. And prosecutors have stated that Rikers Island is an adequate environment to hold pretrial detainees.

“Considering the conditions at Rikers Island is consistent with our policy and practice of determining the least restrictive options that will ensure a defendant’s return to court,” stated Bronx district attorney Darcel Denise Clark.

“Accordingly, the office factors in these conditions along with safety within our community when making our recommendations for bail,” added DOC spokesperson Patrice O’Shaughnessy.

Statistics show that the majority of people detained in the jail who could not afford bail are minorities, the mentally ill, and drug addicts. Activists believe these people are being treated unfairly and are being prejudiced against in preparing a proper defense. It is a fact that those detained pretrial are more inclined to sign unfavorable plea agreements, even if not guilty, as a means of ending their current situation.

On October 5, 2021, a group of state legislators and attorneys wrote a letter to the district attorneys of the five boroughs in the city, asking the prosecutors to stop seeking bail in all of the cases that came before them.

“Throughout the year, a rising jail population has led to the steady degradation of the conditions at Rikers,” read the letter. “There is no doubt that the driving cause behind it remains the decision of your offices to seek bail recklessly and in virtually every eligible case. Those decisions now leave thousands of poor New Yorkers, mostly Black and Brown, to endure torture every day.” 

Prescription for Disaster 

The crisis at Rikers has been exacerbated by guards continually calling out sick. DOC has averaged 35 percent of its work force calling out sick each month for well over a year now. Over 3,500 guards were recorded as sick or medically exempt from work in just one month this past summer, and another 2,000 were absent without leave. In 2019 DOC averaged 645 guards calling out sick each month. In 2020 that number jumped to 2,304 each month, an increase of over 250 percent.

The situation has gotten so dire that many services and programs for prisoners have been cancelled: recreation, visitation, library access, mental health programs, sick call, canteen, religious services, educational programs, and more. Guards have to work double, triple, and even quadruple shifts to cover for the absence of their coworkers. They have slept in their cars and gone without meals in an effort to perform their duties, yet posts have gone completely unmanned for up to 24 hours at a time. Prisoners answer phones, ensure others make it to telephonic hearings, and distribute meals.

Some activists contend that this has a purposeful design. Guards are being accused of using their positions (or absence from these positions) to demonstrate their necessity. Then they use the chaos created by their own staffing shortages to claim that their working conditions are dangerous and inhumane. COBA has been actively pushing for more guards and fewer use-of-force restrictions since its last president, Norman Seabrook, was in office.

The Nunez monitor’s biannual report states that there is no staffing shortage just a mismanagement of resources. The report says there are currently four guards employed for every three prisoners, a rate seven times higher than any other corrections department in the nation. The report also states that many positions could be filled by civilians at a lower wage. The Lippman Commission, formed by City Council in 2014 to explore closing Rikers, recommended reducing the ratio to 0.73 guards for every prisoner to be closer to the national standard.

Nevertheless, DOC hired 600 new recruits to begin in October 2021. Yet COBA still demanded that another 400 more be hired by January 2022. The union’s spokesperson said that “running the city’s jail system is a 24/7 operation, requiring multiple shifts and different housing arrangements with various staffing needs.” 

COBA’s Boscio blamed de Blasio for current conditions at Rikers: “Thanks to [Mayor de Blasio’s] mismanagement, we are unable to conduct facility searches for weapons and drugs. Inmates aren’t getting their required services, and officers, nurses, doctors, and civilians are getting assaulted with impunity.” 

De Blasio stated he was considering hiring private companies to monitor perimeter positions or fill roles that do not interact with prisoners. But Boscio warned that hiring civilians to fill many roles in the jail complex would be a violation of the laws governing unions.

Former DOC Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi created a new policy requiring guards who call out sick to be checked by a doctor within 24 hours of the absenteeism or be suspended for 30 days without pay. The first week the rule was passed 21 suspensions were handed out. After that the number of guards calling out sick on any given day dropped from 300 to 100.

As a result, perhaps, Boscio has now been asked to retire as COBA’s president. Jarrod Shanahan, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Governors State University and writer for Truthout, noted that COBA is a powerful organization that continually stymies efforts to minimize its numbers and impose oversight.

“There is no compromising with COBA and its membership; as long as they have any political power at all, they will be an organized force opposed to the dignity and safety of every incarcerated person in New York City,” Shanahan stated. “COBA, and the movement of police and guard unions of which it is a part, represents a political force that must be defeated. What’s more, the despicable state of Rikers Island today is just the latest evidence that the New York City Department of Corrections cannot be trusted with the custody of anyone.”

Roadmap to Compromise 

Numerous times throughout its existence Rikers has been at the center of investigations of widespread violence, abusive policies, and subpar medical attention. As recently as 2015 a class action suit—Nunez—was settled addressing the deep-seated culture of violence in the jail system. It started in 2011 as a claim filed for cruel and unusual punishment, with plaintiffs accusing guards of taking prisoners to areas off camera and beating them. In 2013, enough litigants joined the suit to declare it a class-action.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara issued a report in 2014 that stated guards relied too heavily on the use of force and solitary confinement for adolescents, noting that juveniles were “beaten as a form of punishment, sometimes in apparent retribution for some perceived disrespectful conduct…[and]…correction officers improperly use injurious force in response to refusals to follow orders, verbal taunts, or insults, even when the inmate presents no threat to the safety or security of staff or other inmates.” 

He felt that was sufficient evidence to prompt DOJ to intervene and join the Nunez suit, too, in 2015. After that Judge Swain presided over a consent settlement aimed at curbing the excessive violence on Rikers Island. Swain also appointed Martin to lead a monitoring group to audit the progress of the implementation of provisions. Every six months the monitoring group has to publish a report disclosing the progress. 

Simultaneous with the lawsuit, former DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte effected new policy aimed at reformation. He discontinued the use of solitary confinement for juveniles and limited it to 30 days for adults. [See: PLN, July 2015, p. 21]

When de Blasio visited the 10-unit complex in March of 2015, he announced a 14-point plan to reduce the level of violence occurring, and the first step was to halt contraband smuggling during visitation by limiting physical contact and partitioning visitors with plexiglass panels. He also intended to separate rival gangs in cell blocks and create a new Enhanced Segregation Housing Unit to maintain control. He vowed to make Rikers a “national model of what is right again.”

Critics argued that de Blasio’s focus on prisoners and their visitors ignored the profuse amount of contraband smuggled into Rikers by guards and staff or the unsolicited perpetration of abuse by guards against prisoners. Department of Investigation Commissioner Mark Peters issued a report in 2015 that said investigators were able to smuggle contraband deftly and easily into all six check points at Rikers Island and noted that deficient background checks on potential employees allowed for guards who were susceptible to corruption and violence. Over 35 percent of the 150 staff members reviewed had red flags that warned against their hiring such as gang affiliation, prior convictions, or relationships with prisoners.

“Unless you have consistently qualified correction officers, solving other problems we care about is an almost insurmountable task,” said Peters. “This is just a function of, for a decade, hirings and screenings and investigations being ignored.”

In 2015, at the time Nunez was settled, Seabrook had been president of COBA for two decades. City officials said he was a roadblock in their efforts to curb corruption because he opposed anything that restricted guards in the performance of their duties. He said all the problems with violence at Rikers were caused by the city’s refusal to hire more guards and enforce discipline. He also complained that eliminating segregation took away the best tool guards had in controlling prisoner behavior. Notoriously, he shielded guards from discipline for excessive use of force. 

In 2016, Just Leadership USA President Glenn Martin began the campaign #CloseRikers. Having been incarcerated twice there himself, Martin said the prison complex bred a culture of violence. Bearing out his point, use of force incidents by 2017 numbered 2,243.

Then SCOC stated that DOC failed to comply with minimum safety standards for prisoners and ordered a halt to all transfers to Rikers from county jails as of May of 2017. The agency said housing areas at Rikers were not adequately staffed, electronic monitoring devices were not installed where needed, and guards were not keeping up with their required certifications. SCOC also noted that 38 guards had been arrested for brutality, sexual assault, and introduction of contraband in the prior three years.

At that point De Blasio agreed that the complex needed to be shut down, but he stated it would take 10 years to complete the task. Glenn Martin, doubtful of de Blasio’s intentions, said 10 years was “the equivalent of never.” 

A similar campaign, #ShutDownRikers, has also gained momentum with the addition of support from Jails Action Coalition, Million March NYC, and Akeem Browder (brother to Kalief Browder) and his supporters. The movement calls not only for the closure of the nation’s most violently abusive jail complex, but also the defunding of the city’s police department. Members believe communities would be better served by programs geared toward education, healthcare, and housing than the city’s draconian and inherently prejudiced policing practices.

De Blasio’s announced plan to close Rikers and open new jails in each of the five boroughs except Staten Island drew much criticism from abolitionists. They complained that their push to close Rikers was defanged and distorted with this plan.

“The topic of shutting down Rikers has breached and found some permanence in mainstream conversation,” the organization wrote in a 2016 public statement. “A variety of liberal political figures began weighing in, rapidly co-opting the work of the grassroots movement that valued, above all else, community inclusion. The conversation [concerning] closing Rikers has become increasingly synonymous with building neighborhood jails, which is entirely incompatible with our campaign’s abolitionist perspectives.” 

Soon politicians such as former City Council member Daniel Dromm (D) and the city’s comptroller, Scott Stringer, joined the abolitionists. Much of the community felt that DOC was failing miserably in its function of care, custody, and control of the city’s prisoners and pretrial detainees.

Former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (D) announced on February 11, 2016, that she was forming a commission led by New York State Chief Judge Johnathan Lippman to research ways to reduce Rikers Island jail population so that closing the complex could soon be achieved. Abolitionists such as Jails Action Coalition member Five Mualimm-ak stated that this just moved preexisting problems from one location to another. A more proactive answer to mass incarceration was needed.

The Lippman report, published in 2017, suggested several “off-ramps” that could be used to help reduce the jail’s population, such as bail reform, electronic monitoring, and supervision. It also recommended, “without hesitation or equivocation, permanently ending the use of Rikers Island as a jail facility in any form or function.”

“The Island is a powerful symbol,” the report concluded, “of a discredited approach to criminal justice—a penal colony that subjects all within its walls to inhumane conditions.” 

In September 2020 the New York City chapter of the American Institute of Architects issued a statement urging its members to stop designing cruel and unjust spaces which, the group said, uphold the intrinsic racism in the criminal justice system. And in December 2020 the group also adopted new rules in its Code of Ethics that prohibits their members from designing spaces used for execution, torture, or solitary confinement.

De Blasio tasked the City Council with finding four sites to build new jails. In Queens, the existing Queens Detention Center would remain open but be completely renovated, and the city would maintain the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center—known as “The Barge”—in the Bronx. Total capacity of all six jails is projected at 5,000 prisoners. 

De Blasio’s plan also included bail reform, alternative sentencing measures for sentences of 30 days or less, improving flight risk assessment tools, ensuring a speedy court process, and expeditious transfers to state facilities upon sentencing, as well as more humane jail facilities with improved mental health services, spacious and well-ventilated living quarters, and centralized guard stations encouraging more interaction with the prison population. 

Activists say the plan needs more focus on stopping “broken-windows” policing, especially in communities of color. This enforcement of insignificant violations (such as possession of small amounts of marijuana) only serves to broaden police control and jurisdiction in targeted areas, the argument goes, and resources used to arrest multitudes of commuters for fare-beating could be put to better use eliminating subway fares.

In the fall of 2018, the Mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice Deputy Director Dana Kaplan unveiled design plans for a new jail at a hearing in the Bronx courthouse. High ceilings and large, spacious rooms feature plenty of natural lighting. Facades were designed to blend pleasingly into the neighborhood. But residents clamored against jail facilities being constructed within their communities. The site chosen for one of the planned facilities was a police department tow-pound located on land already owned by the city in the Bronx. Yet response from citizens there was outrage. They said the borough had already been stigmatized by past crime and they did not want this towering monolith dominating the gateway to the Bronx. (Because of its design requirements, the new jail was required to be 40 stories tall, a fact critics contended would result in constant elevator malfunctions from overuse.) 

The site chosen in Manhattan sat next to Chinatown, where residents stated they had already been unfairly burdened with courts and jails. Staten Island was excluded from any plans because de Blasio felt it was too small to support a new facility (though many believed it was because of the resistance he knew he would receive from its conservative residents). Expected costs of these plans is about $11 billion and completion has been set for 2027.

To date, de Blasio has removed all juveniles from Rikers Island. He has closed two intake centers (then later reopened EMTC due to an influx of new prisoners), released over 1,200 parole violators, implemented new bail reforms (which were later scaled back after media sensationalism), and reduced jail population by 44%.

But activists and abolitionists say that this is not enough. More needs to be done to address not only the world’s highest incarceration rate, but also its highest recidivism rate as well.

“This is an urgent matter of life and death, and it needs relief today,” said Mary Lynn Werlwas, director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society.

“We cannot continue to allow Rikers Island to deteriorate to the point that it is no longer a safe place for those in custody or those who work in the jails,” added Representative Ritchie Torres (D-Bronx). 

De Blasio had already walked back several of his reform policies by November 8, 2021, when BOC issued a statement condemning the mayor for knuckling under pressure and removing many of the recent changes he had implemented. The harsh sentiment was couched in an order accusing de Blasio of interfering with BOC’s Rulemaking and Variance Process.

On November 1, 2021, de Blasio signed Executive Order 279 suspending certain BOC minimum standards enacted to protect the rights of prisoners. As a result, DOC is once again allowed to shackle prisoners to desks, house youthful offenders with adults, restrict access to the law library, and carry out disciplinary action against a prisoner without due process or representation. The order also rescinded rules restricting segregation, allowing DOC to use solitary confinement against prisoners with impunity. 

In the legislative session set for January 2022, Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell (D-Manhattan) planned to introduce a bill that would create a Correctional Ombudsman to oversee DOC. As it stands now, SCOC serves that purpose. But this organization is composed of three ex-prison officials, and all remediation is handled internally. O’Donnell stated that it was improper to have the DOC in effect govern itself, pointing to the fact that SCOC has not issued one violation to DOC since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The director of community engagement at the Parole Preparation Project, Anthony Dixon, stated that the council should simply empower the Correction Association (CA), an independent monitoring organization that has been reporting on DOC for over 185 years. State Senator Luis Sepúlveda (D-Bronx) intends to do just that. He is currently attempting to introduce a bill that would give CA unfettered access to all DOC records and the ability to legislate certain actions.

“Independent oversight has been sorely lacking in the state’s correction system for far too long,” said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. “The Office of Correctional Ombudsman, which would be separate from [the state Department of Corrections and Community Services] will allow for impartial investigations that will get to the bottom of such troubling allegations of retaliation against prisoners, violent assaults and inmates being denied medical attention so we can take corrective actions that will ensure the safe, just and effective operation of the state’s correctional facilities.”

Saying Their Names 

In the past year, 16 people died on Rikers Island, five from suicide, two from COVID-19, and the rest from various medical situations. DOC is currently under investigation for its responsibility in several of the cases. The following is a list of their names: 

• William Diaz-Guzman, 30, died by suicide on January 23, 2021;

• Tomas Carlo-Camacho, 48, died by suicide on March 2, 2021; 

• Javier Velasco, 37, died by suicide on March 19, 2021;

• Thomas Earl Braunson III, 35, died of possible drug overdose on April 19, 2021;

• Richard Blake, 45, found dead April 30, 2021, after complaining of not feeling well;

• Hector Rodriguez, 60, died of an asthma attack on June 21, 2020;

• Jose Mejia Martinez, 34, died on June 10, 2021, in another episode when a prisoner called for medical attention and did not receive any in time; 

• Robert Jackson, 42, found dead of suicide in his cell on June 30, 2021, after a guard abandoned his post;

• Brandon Rodriguez, 25, died by suicide on August 10, 2021;

• Segundo Guallpa, 58, died by suicide on August 26, 2021;

• Esias Johnson, 21, died of a possible drug overdose on September 7, 2021;

• Isa Abdul Karim, 42, died of COVID-19 on September 19, 2021;

• Stephan Khadu, 24, died of an unspecified medical condition on September 22, 2021;

• Victor Mercado, 64, died of COVID-19 on October 15, 2021; 

• Malcom Boatwright, 28, died on December 11, 2021, cause under investigation;

• William Brown, 55, died December 15, 2021, cause under investigation.

Members of a group of attorneys known as the Five Boro Defenders call the names of the recently deceased at the first appearance of each case they have in court. They do this to honor the dead and they do this in hopes that the judge will not pass an unnecessary death sentence but will release the defendant before them without bail to await his or her court proceedings. 

They follow others who have passed away during their stay at this violent prison. Wooden caskets carry their names in a crowded cemetery on Hart Island. But here are a few from the last nine years:

• Michael Tyson, 53, and Raymond Rivera, 55, who were both jailed on parole violations when they became the first and second Rikers prisoners, respectively, to succumb to COVID-19 in April 2020;

• Fabian Cruz, 35, who hanged himself on New Year’s Day 2016, when he was supposed to be on suicide watch;

• Victor Woods, 53, who died in September 2014 of injuries sustained during his arrest; a guard, Wickenson DeMaitre, was initially charged with ignoring Woods’ cries for help, but those charges were later dropped, after which DeMaitre sued the city, claiming because he was Black he’d been set up to take the fall for Woods’ death (that suit was dismissed);

• Andy Henriquez, 19, who died of a torn aorta in a solitary confinement cell in 2014 after guards ignored his cries for help for three months—though a Corizon Health doctor offered him a prescription for hand cream;

• Carlos Mercado, 45, who died 15 hours after his 2013 arrest because guards decided he was “dope sick” and withheld his diabetes medication, leading to a $1.5 million settlement with his family two years later.

For these men who have died at Rikers, we have a piece of their story. We know the names written on their caskets, we know something of how they died. But we truly do not know who they were. And, for so many more still alive but wasting away at Rikers, whose names we may not have heard yet, we place them in that box of violence and degradation and forget them, in a cemetery of the living.

Maybe we should be more like Vincent Maglione. Maybe we should be more intrigued by their stories. And maybe we should not bury them in the first place in the grave of mass incarceration. 

Sources: The Aleph Institute, AP News, Brennan Center, Buzzfeed, CTV News, CBS News, The City.NYC, Correctional News, Counterpunch, Curbed, Daily News, The Guardian, Gotham Gazette, Gothamist, Inquest, The Intercept, The Marshall Project, NPR,, New Republic, New York Focus, New York Post, New York Times, New Yorker, Queens Eagle, WCBS-TV, Rep. Jamie Raskin, Gov. Kathy Holchul

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