By: gabriel sayegh via Medium.com
Henry Robinson knows what a disaster Rikers Island is. The Brooklyn native was incarcerated at New York City’s infamous jail complex in 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The horrors that you see within the walls of Rikers are unimaginable,” Henry said. “If you did not have a mental health problem going into Rikers, you will have one on your way out.”
Sharlene Melendez has a loved one at Rikers. “I haven’t stopped worrying about his well-being since he got in,” she said. “It is painful to see them go through sleep deprivation, loss of weight, lack of access to the bare necessities you need to survive. . . . They are being treated like animals.”
An island with only one narrow bridge connecting it to Queens, Rikers is out-of-sight, out-of-mind for people privileged enough to never think about it. But for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers — those who have been incarcerated there, their families and friends, and the people who work there — Rikers is a nightmare. Conditions are horrific, violence is rampant, and the department of correction is beset with scandals and dysfunction. As things get even worse, more New Yorkers are calling for federal intervention.
The jails on Rikers Island are in disrepair and in disarray. Most people there are being held pretrial while considered innocent because, unlike those who have money, they can’t afford bail. And about 90 percent of those incarcerated at Rikers are Black and Latino, though those groups make up only about half the city’s population. Most people locked up there come from neighborhoods with high rates of poverty and policing. The racism is systemic.
The situation at Rikers has been ghastly for decades. In 2015, a U.S. District Court finally appointed a federal monitor to report on conditions and recommend improvements. But Rikers is worse now — and it was already deadly when Eric Adams became mayor in 2022. It has deteriorated even further: at least 27 people have died in the city jail system since he took office.
Most recently — as far as we know — 33-year-old Donny Ubiera died at Rikers in late August. But the true number of deaths there under this administration is unclear, because the New York City Department of Correction has stopped publicly reporting deaths of people in its custody and care. The federal monitor reports that rather than fix the problems plaguing city jails, Mayor Adams and his DOC commissioner have sought to hide them. Federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York recently warned: “Incarcerated people and corrections staff continue to face an imminent risk of harm on a daily basis.”
Community groups and people impacted by Rikers — like Henry and Sharlene — won’t let Adams hide this catastrophe. They are both members at the Brooklyn-based Katal Center, where I serve as co–executive director. Katal and other groups have been working for years to shut down Rikers. At last, in 2017, then-mayor Bill de Blasio and the city council agreed with community demands to do that. Two years later, the city adopted a plan to close Rikers that requires reducing the city jail population.
But despite pledging his support when he campaigned, Adams has worked to lock up more people while pushing back on the 2019 closure plan. As Henry said, “It is of utmost importance that Mayor Eric Adams shuts down Rikers Island immediately, not only because of the deaths but also because of all the inhumanities that unfold on a daily basis.”
As the perilous downward spiral at Rikers continues, more leaders and community members are calling for the federal courts to appoint an independent receiver to take over. As the Brennan Center for Justice describes, “When a local or state government proves unable or unwilling to improve a distressed public institution that has long defied federal law, a federal court can take the troubled entity out of the government’s hands and appoint a ‘receiver’ — a nonpartisan expert — to assume direct control, with an eye towards reform.” A receiver can help improve conditions and save lives until Rikers is ultimately shut down.
In early August, Katal and more than a dozen other community and advocacy groups rallied in Manhattan, along with elected officials. The groups gathered at City Hall to demand that Mayor Adams close Rikers, then marched to Foley Square, across from the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse, to call on the courts to intervene and appoint a federal receiver.
“Rikers has been a hellhole for decades,” said Donna Hylton, founder and president of the nonprofit A Little Piece of Light. She has worked for years to close Rikers and joined the recent protest. “I’ve been incarcerated on Rikers, and I’ve experienced firsthand the awful conditions, the violence, the disregard for human life,” she said. “Rikers must be shut down.”
The action was the latest in a series of protests demanding that government officials listen to community groups and address the crisis. A judge has finally opened the door to federal receivership. The next court hearing is in November, but community groups aren’t letting up in the meantime. Kevin Valentine is a Katal member who has been behind bars, and he put it succinctly: “Just like my family advocated for me during my incarceration, I will continue to advocate for those being held at Rikers. It’s time for solutions.”
gabriel sayegh is the co–executive director of the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice. He lives in Brooklyn.