10 Deaths, Exhausted Guards, Rampant Violence: Why Rikers Is in Crisis

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Several recent deaths have raised questions about the infamous New York City prison complex. Here are some answers.

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New York City’s infamous Rikers Island prison complex has long been known for brutal conditions, but the situation inside has spiraled out of control in recent months.


Ten people imprisoned in Rikers have died this year, with at least four committing suicide – the largest death toll in prison in years. The gang and other captives are taking other imprisoned people to their hostels. There the relatives of the people who are in jail are scared about the lives of their loved ones.

“My child has to go to court, which is being held on the island as he awaits trial on charges of assault and grand theft,” said Penny Wilkinson, mother of 25-year-old Nicolas Caballero. Don’t want to see him die in jail.”

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The vast majority of those being put on recourse have not been tried and are presumed innocent.

Here are some answers to questions about what’s causing the feature problems:

Rikers has long been characterized by dysfunction and violence, from its opening in 1935 to a culture of brutality and corruption that led to an extensive federal investigation into the facility a decade earlier.

But the contours of today’s crisis have been shaped by the corona virus, which has infected over 2,200 employees The Department of Corrections has so far led to a widespread shortage of staff.

“It started during COVID and it’s gotten out of control,” said Alice Fontier, Harlem’s Neighborhood Defender Service managing director of staffing problems.

With such a large number of staff members falling ill, the condition of the Rikers worsened. This caused a snowball effect as additional corrections officers – who were given unlimited sick time subject to significant sanctions only until recently – began to call in sick in unusually high numbers, or simply stop showing up. done.

About a year after the pandemic began, A federal monitor noted, “An extraordinarily large number of employees were not reporting to work.” At the same time, the population of detainees in Rikers was increasing.

More than 1,500 people were released to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, but the prison population eventually surpassed pandemic levels – and self-harm rates among those imprisoned there began to rise rapidly.

Until last month, the Monitor found, staff shortages had compromised the safety of everyone on the island.

Prison officials have reported that an average of 2,000 officers were sick or unable to work at certain points in a day this summer. It is not clear how many people were actually sick; Until last month, corrections officers only had to supply doctor’s notes within two days of becoming ill.

The commissioner of the Department of Corrections, Vincent Shiraldi, said in a hearing on Wednesday that he suspected some officials were using sick days as an “unlimited vacation pool.”

Their unavailability has slowed the basic functions of Rikers to a crawl, starting with the intake process, where people typically spend less than 24 hours receiving clothing, undergoing medical checkups and being assigned to housing units. We do.

In recent months, portions of those hours have been turned into days and even weeks, with people housed in units that don’t have beds or enough room.

Social distancing is impossible but jailed people are not given masks if they lose their masks or get them dirty, at a time when COVID-19 continues to affect them. The distribution of food, water and medicine has been delayed due to short staffing. Many people have also experienced delays in seeking immediate medical and mental health care, and go to court.

According to people who have visited the premises recently, some areas are covered with garbage and urine, and some of the detained people are being kept in small showers with barely enough time to stand. There is enough space.

the dead include wilson diaz-guzman, 30, who hanged himself in his cell in January, and Javier Velasco, 30, who was found unresponsive in March with a bedsheet wrapped around his neck. on 10 August, Brandon Rodriguez, 25, was found hanging in an intake area in the prison and in a shower on 30 August, According to Gualpa, 57, was found dead in what the Department of Corrections described as a suspected suicide.

It is not clear that . death of Tomas Carlo Camacho, 48, in March, had a suicide. Mr Camacho was found unresponsive and with his head on his knees through a small opening in the cell’s door known as the cuffing slot.

At least five more people have died on Rikers Island this year: Thomas Brownson III, 35, Richard Blake, 45, Jose Mejia Martinez, 35, robert jackson, 42 and, last week, Asias Johnson, 24. The cause of his death is unknown.

Alan Che King, 51, who is being held at Rikers, said he found Mr Johnson unresponsive in a dorm at the prison. Mr Johnson had begged staff for medical help two days after his death, Mr King said.

The guards tried to help, Mr King said, but it looked like the clinic was full of patients.

“He said he was in a lot of pain. His stomach was hurting,” said Mr. King. “He said he needed to go to the clinic.”

Rikers is a city prison, but people are sent there because they are accused of violating state law. This means that any attempt to resolve the crisis there must be at the tangled crossroads of state and city politics.

A group of state lawmakers, city officials and public defenders held a news conference in Rikers on Monday, and called for a slate of actions to be taken by Gov. Kathy Hochul, Mayor Bill de Blasio and prosecutors and judges in New York City. did. are bound by state law, but may use their discretion to influence the results of individual defendants.

Lawmakers described a humanitarian crisis during their tour of the facility, where they saw dozens of people with toilets packed into cells without masks, unable to see their lawyers because they had not yet been booked. In some intake units, people were being put in showers and relieved themselves in plastic bags.

“It’s a nightmare out there,” said state Senator Jabari Brisport.

Mr. de Blasio on Tuesday announced a plan designed to improve conditions at Rikers, including hiring contractors to expedite repairs and provide medical care for staff on duty. He also said that correctional officers who do not come to work will be suspended without pay.

The mayor set a goal to speed people through the intake process in 24 hours or less, and announced plans to send some police officers to staff court buildings, others to help corrections officers recurse. freed up.

Many of those who visited Rikers this week said the mayor’s plan was inadequate and would not do anything to improve the situation immediately. A union representing the city’s prison officials, which has urged the city to hire thousands more staff members, called on the mayor to resign.

Lawmakers have asked Mr de Blasio to use his powers to allow the early release of some imprisoned people, as he did last spring. And he asked the mayor to visit Rikers, which he hasn’t done since June 2017.

Mr. de Blasio has been reluctant to allow the early release of more imprisoned people, and he has denied a report He said he was considering the release of around 180 people. The New York City Police Commissioner has strongly opposed any early release.

Lawmakers also called on Ms Hochul to sign the Less is More Act, a parole reform bill that would prevent people accused of violating parole from being automatically jailed, among other things.

On Tuesday, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. and his potential successor, Alvin Bragg. Ms. Hochul to sign the bill.

Had she signed it, and directed that it be implemented immediately, about 400 people in Rikers would be eligible for release.

Ms Hochul has said she is “concerned” about the conditions in the city’s prisons and will review the bill.

Lawmakers and advocates who visited Rikers on Monday also called on prosecutors and judges to stop sending people there while the situation remains dangerous, partly by eliminating the use of cash bail.

“Many prosecutors and district attorneys in New York City are punishing working-class New Yorkers for the prospect of death,” said Assembly member Johran Mamdani.

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