De Blasio Rejects Decarceration as Human Rights Catastrophe Consumes Rikers

September 16, 2021

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declined to pursue decarceration for the Rikers Island jail complex at a press conference on September 15—just as an all-day virtual city council hearing began, during which one lawmaker said the facility’s current conditions are almost like a concentration camp.

De Blasio said that he was not focused on using his authority to grant some 250 people work release, and instead emphasized bolstering the jail’s staffing levels, amid rising outcry over the past week as lawmakers and advocates emphasized the urgency of addressing inhumane conditions.

“The conditions that both detained individuals and correction officers face are an ever-deteriorating human rights catastrophe that is just short of a concentration camp,” Assemblymember Kenny Burgos said. “We wouldn’t allow animals to live in these conditions, yet we allow human beings to live in abject squalor.”

Sen. Alessandra Biaggi described the conditions she witnessed as “horrifying” and “inhumane,” with “neverending” piles of feces and garbage.

Multiple state senators and assemblymembers toured Rikers on September 13, despite attempts by the de Blasio administration to block them from accessing it. 

Senator Jessica Ramos witnessed a man try to kill himself during her visit. She met another man who cut himself to be able to access mental health medication. Sen. Alessandra Biaggi described the conditions she witnessed as “horrifying” and “inhumane,” with “neverending” piles of feces and garbage covering the floor, detainees covered in so many bug bites they appeared to have chickenpox, and detainees locked in solitary shower cells without running water.

In a New York Daily News op-ed, Tiffany Cabán, the Democratic nominee for the 22nd city council district, described detainees not receiving medical care for broken bones, and being left without daily HIV and psychiatric medication.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said during the hearing that the conditions were so bad he was shocked there hadn’t been an “Attica-style uprising,” and thought one might happen while legislators were visiting. 

The conditions at Rikers received renewed attention last week after the facility’s chief medical officer, Ross MacDonald, asked the city council for state or federal assistance. In a letter to Council Speaker Corey Johnson, MacDonald wrote that Rikers Island has experienced a “new and worsening emergency that has developed over the course of the last year.”

Ten detainees have died at Rikers this year. Esias Johnson, 24, was found dead in his cell earlier this month, after jail staff would not take him to court hearings. He was being held on $1 bail.

The family of 42-year-old Robert Jackson, who was found dead in his cell on June 30, alleged on September 13 that he would still be alive if a corrections officer had not walked off the job. The officer left his post after working 20 straight hours, according to the Corrections Officers Benevolent Association. 

An average of more than 1,400 workers called out each day last month, forcing staff who appeared for their shifts to work 16- and 24-hour days. DOC Chief of Staff Dana Wax said that 1,789 of the 8,370 jail staff—about one in five—had called out sick on September 14. 

Department of Corrections Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi said that hundreds more officers would be hired, and guards working triple shifts would be given bonuses and free rides to work.

On September 14, de Blasio announced a plan that he said would address the jail’s conditions. Contractors would help clean it; NYPD officers would replace jail guards at courts; the jail would expedite intake processing by reopening areas that had been previously closed; and officers who violated sick leave and didn’t show up to work would receive 30-day unpaid suspensions. 

First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan insisted during the hearing that the city could manage the crisis. He repeatedly called for Governor Kathy Hochul to implement the Less is More Act, which would prevent re-incarcerating people for technical parole violations. According to the Vera Institute, 277 people are in Rikers for a technical parole violation, meaning even if the act is signed, it would not have a significant impact on the jail’s current population.

“We have to pursue every single thing that we have available to us,” said Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani, calling out “state-sanctioned murder.”

While city officials highlighted boosting staffing numbers and punishing staff who violate sick leave rules, criminal justice advocates have pushed for decarceration. A coalition of two dozen groups including the Brooklyn Defender Services, the Urban Justice Center and the Legal Aid Society called for city and state leaders, judges and prosecutors to reduce the jail’s population immediately. 

After hours of city council members hearing testimony from Schiraldi, state lawmakers expressed frustration at the scope of solutions being proposed. Assemblymember Emily Gallagher, who also described seeing maggots during her visit, called for an end to cash bail.

“We have to pursue every single thing that we have available to us,” said Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani, calling out lawmakers for permitting “state-sanctioned murder.”

“At its core, this crisis is about decarceration. We cannot hire our way out of this crisis.”



Correction, September 16: This article has been updated to clarifying the timing of Mayor de Blasio’s press conference.

Photograph of Rikers Island by Tim Rodenburg via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

Daniel Moritz-Rabson

Daniel is a freelance reporter whose work has been published in outlets including Fortune, The Appeal and Gothamist. He will FOIA documents related to criminal justice if you ask nicely. He lives in Brooklyn.

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