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RELEASE: Community Groups, Elected Officials, and Directly Impacted People Rally To Call for Federal Courts to Take Over Rikers

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**PRESS RELEASE**

December 14, 2023

Contact: Yonah Zeitz – 347-201-2768 yonah@katalcenter.org, 

Follow online: #ShutRikers #CutShutInvestNY | @katalcenter | shutriker.org 

Community Groups, Elected Officials, and Directly Impacted People Rally To Call for Federal Courts to Take Over Rikers

Growing Support for Independent Receiver Includes More Than 50 Community & Advocacy Groups, NY Attorney General Leticia James, NYC Bar Association, Former Public Safety and Correctional Officials, and More

Until Rikers is Shut Down, Federal Courts Must Immediately Appoint a Federal Receiver to Take Over at Rikers to Save Lives and Improve Conditions 

New York, NY – Today, a federal court in Manhattan held a hearing about the ongoing crisis at Rikers Island Jail Complex. Prior to the hearing, people directly impacted by Rikers, along with community groups and elected officials, gathered outside the court to demand that the City shut down Rikers and to call upon federal courts to intervene immediately to save lives. 

Since Mayor Adams took office, Rikers has been mired in worsening, overlapping crises. As violence spikes and dysfunction reigns at the Department of Correction, at least 28 people have died in NYC jails under Mayor Adams. As the situation in city jails have become more dire, the Adams administration has sought to hide those problems from the public and the federal courts alike. The DOC won’t disclose information as required under the federal consent decree, including the number of actual deaths at Rikers. These, and a myriad of other problems, have prompted the federal courts to begin serious consideration of taking control of city jails away from Mayor Adams and appointing an independent federal receiver.

Today’s hearing, presided over by U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain, focused on recent motions calling for an independent federal receiver to take over at Rikers, as filed by the Legal Aid Society and the U.S. Attorney of the Southern District. As Vital City explains, a receiver would have the full power and authority to direct the day-to-day operations as “an arm of the court, independent of the politics, bureaucracy, and other dysfunctional structures that perpetuate the harm.” A federal receiver could cut through the red tape and political obstacles that contribute to the ongoing cycle of chaos at Rikers and improve conditions for people incarcerated and employed there.

While calls for a federal receiver have circulated for some time, substantial, widespread support for a federal receiver has grown dramatically since 2022 (see full list of supporters here). Many elected leaders in New York have called for a federal receiver, including NY Attorney General Letitia James,  Comptroller Brad Lander, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, nearly 20 City Council members, and over two dozen state legislators.

In June, community groups worked with PA Williams to introduce City Council Resolution 669, which calls for federal receivership. The resolution is now pending in City Council with 18 co-sponsors.

Speakers at today’s rally demanded that Mayor Adams shut down Rikers. Until that happens, the federal courts must appoint a receiver who can help save lives and mitigate the growing crisis.

Statements from elected officials, impacted people, 

and community and advocacy groups: 

NYC Comptroller Brad Lander, said: “After 18 months of tracking the numbers, the City seems unwilling or unable to overhaul its jail management. That’s why a wide coalition including Legal Aid, the US Attorney Damian Williams, and city elected leaders like myself support federal receivership, and we hope Judge Swain decides to grant the motion. Rikers needs a receiver who will have the authority to implement reforms to jail operations, improve accountability and conditions in our jails, and get us back on the path to closing Rikers.”

Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams, said: “It’s past time to close Rikers, and we cannot continue to see delay tactics put in place. We must close Rikers Island in the name of all who have suffered injuries and lost their lives out of sight and out of mind, and to prevent future pain. Every day Rikers remains open, the state of crisis continues. There are a number of steps we can and must take to protect people on both sides of the bars, but the best thing for everyone on Rikers is to close it down.”

State Senator Julia Salazar, said: “The crisis at Rikers Island is only getting worse, and the time for change is long overdue. Just as City leadership has interfered with the federal monitor’s efforts to stabilize conditions in the facilities, they are increasingly traumatic and lethal. As we move toward closing Rikers once and for all, the courts must appoint a receiver to reverse this escalating human rights emergency.”

Assemblymember Phara Souffrant Forrest, said: “In this moment, it is vital to restate our collective belief in the power of justice, compassion, and reform. The time has come to close Rikers Island, a symbol of a broken system, and the first step toward that goal must be for the federal government to step in and take receivership of Rikers in order to stem the tide of violence and devastating loss of life that the city has allowed to continue unabated. Let us transform this dark chapter of our city’s history into an opportunity for change, building a society where rehabilitation triumphs over punishment, and where every life has the chance to rebuild and contribute positively to our community.”

Assemblymember Emily Gallagher, said: “The horror houses of Rikers Island must close but until that day finally arrives, the jail complex must be put under immediate federal control. Mayor Adams is demonstrably unable to ensure basic constitutional rights and humanitarian standards at these facilities, even as he’s publicly undermined the city law requiring its ultimate closure. Enough is enough. Federal control now.”

Council Member Keith Power, Majority Leader of the City Council, said: “Conditions at Rikers Island remain intolerable. The status quo is clearly not working and I urge the court to allow Rikers to be placed in federal receivership. This will allow for competent management to step in and improve conditions as we work towards the ultimate goal of closing the facility.”

Council Member Shekar Krishnan, said: “The humanitarian crisis on Rikers Island is an urgent human rights crisis that our city cannot continue to overlook. The Federal monitor, prosecutors and advocates agree that the rampant deaths and inhumane conditions on Rikers Island cannot be improved until federal courts step in and appoint a receiver. However, that is not nearly enough. Rikers must be closed. I am grateful to the Katal Center for hosting this rally, and always fighting to improve conditions on Rikers.”

Council Member Carmen De La Rosa, said: “The crisis at Rikers Island has for far too long been a humanitarian stain on our city. The loss of life, perpetual violence, and alarming conditions at the jail complex cannot continue. Until Rikers is closed, I call on the federal courts to appoint a receiver to improve conditions and save lives. We cannot allow the situation to worsen, and I stand in solidarity with all those impacted by Rikers in calling for transparency, accountability, and justice.”

Council Member Tiffany Cabán, whose district includes the Rikers Island Jail Complex, said: “Rikers is a hellhole. I have no confidence in the Adams Administration’s ability to make it anything else. In all honesty, I don’t have much confidence in the Federal Government’s ability to transform Rikers Island either, but something has to change. We need to decarcerate the island, shut down the facility, and invest in communities so that returning New Yorkers have the supports they need to grow, heal, and learn. Mayor Adams’ administration of lies and violence will continue to make matters worse, and it must not be allowed to continue.”

Council Member Rita Joseph, said: “Our predecessors made the decision to close Rikers Island in 2019, but here we are, four years later, and the goal remains elusive with another four years until the deadline. Since January 2023, the loss of 28 lives on the island underscores the undeniable safety risks for guards, staff, and inmates. It is evident that Rikers is not a safe environment. The pressing need for intervention is clear, and I strongly urge the federal courts to appoint a receiver to address these critical issues promptly.”

Council Member Lincoln Restler, said: “As the conditions at Rikers worsen, the federal government must step in and take control. We need to close Rikers Island as soon as possible, but in the interim a federal receivership can cut through intractable issues and start addressing the humanitarian disaster that is a stain on our City.”

Sharlene Melendez, Member of the Katal Center, said: “The deaths need to stop. There’s far too much bloodshed. In less than two years, at least 28 people have died in city jails under Mayor Adam’s watch. As a mother whose son is currently at Rikers, I feel so deeply for all the parents who have lost a child at the hands of the Department of Corrections. There is no justice. Violence is out of control at Rikers Island. Everyone who is detained on the island lives in fear and horror. My son is terrified. Every single day, he is fighting for his life. My son wants out. While being detained at Rikers, he has lost so much weight. He went from 165 pounds down to 126 pounds. The reason why he lost so much weight is because he can’t sleep at night. He is in a state of constant fear that he can’t even allow his body to rest. My kid is barely hanging in there. You cannot cage people in inhumane conditions and expect them to be better off, or expect our communities to be better off. This does nothing but cause more harm and violence. People don’t have access to medical care, people are living in terrible conditions, and people are dying. Rikers Island is a hellhole, and the Mayor needs to shut it down. Until Rikers is shut down, it is time for the federal courts to appoint an independent receiver to improve conditions and save lives.”

Ana María Archila and Jasmine Gripper,  NY Working Families Party State Directors, said:  “The conditions at Rikers Island are rapidly deteriorating under Mayor Eric Adams. Under his watch, more than two dozen people have died in city jails. His mismanagement continues to harm the lives of countless New Yorkers, including those who are waiting for their day in court. As we push for the long overdue closure of Rikers Island, we need federal courts to step in to stop the epidemic of deaths and abuses at the facility.” 

Lori Zeno, Executive Director and Founder of Queens Defenders, said: “While Mayor Adams is focused on budget cuts, the people of New York City are calling for leadership to end the humanitarian crisis at Rikers Island. We are continuing the fight to demand the appointment of a federal receiver to address the deplorable conditions that have led to 28 deaths this year.  Rather than arbitrary cuts, the City should instead direct resources toward addressing mental health, housing, and unemployment issues faced by many New Yorkers impacted by criminal legal system involvement.”

Stan Germán, Executive Director of the New York County Defender Services, said: “For nearly a decade, this court has tried every conceivable option to induce the NYC Department of Correction to maintain basic safety and humanity in its jail facilities. In that span of time, in custody deaths, as a result of DOC’ gross negligence, have become routine and thousands of New Yorkers have been forever traumatized as Rikers Island has spiraled further into an abyss of cruelty and violence. We have exhausted all options and we are simply out of time. Riker’s Island needs a to be placed into a federal receivership.”

Alice Fontier, Managing Director of Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, said: “This administration has proved that the City cannot save Rikers Island. It continues to be inhumane and deadly. Lives depend on real change and that cannot come from within. We call on Mayor Adams to recognize this reality and consent to the assignment of a federal receiver.”

Anthony Feliciano, Vice President for Community Mobilization at Housing Works, said: Many of our resilient community members have experienced firsthand the inhumane conditions within Rikers walls. It’s time for the Adams administration to act. Rikers Island is a costly and insufficient substitute for offering genuine mental health services to those in need. Our financial resources should be directed towards endeavors that aid individuals, rather than those that diminish their well-being.”

Audacia Ray, Director of Community Organizing and Public Advocacy at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, said: “In 2019, trans Afro-Latine woman Layleen Polanco was found dead in her cell at Rikers Island. In the years since her preventable death, the conditions at Rikers have only worsened, with communities of color and LGBTQ folks bearing the brunt of the violence. While we know that true justice for all will only come when Rikers is shut down, New York State must implement a receivership now to mitigate the violence at Rikers.”

Rabbi Margo Hughes-Robinson, New York Rabbinic Organizer of T’ruah, said: The Talmud (Avodah Zara 3a) asserts that the Holy One of Blessing does not deal with Their creation through tyranny, but rather wishes for us to feel that justice is executed fairly. The conditions of the physical plant at Rikers, the systemic management issues that I’m aware that this administration by no means created–but did inherit, and the pandemic have created an extremely dangerous and often lethal situation for all of the New Yorkers who are both incarcerated and who are working on the island. No one experiencing incarceration on Rikers Island is free from the tyranny of its current conditions, and it must be closed. Almost half (49%) of those on Rikers have a serious mental health concern, we are deeply concerned about the use of incarceration as a substitute for mental health care. Additionally, 77% of women on Rikers have previously experienced sexual assault or trauma prior to their arrival on the island. 95% of all people who are incarcerated come home– these issues reverberate in their families, faith communities, and neighborhoods, and the entire city.  We are eager to continue to advocate in partnership with the communities most directly affected by this emergency of justice about the ways we can seek justice in this city, and move towards a place of decarceration that supports the safety, dignity and wellbeing of every New Yorker.”

NYC Metro Raging Grannies, said: “Raging Grannies are furious! Holding people because they can’t pay bail is immoral. Our grandchildren must not continue to die in filthy neglected NYC jails. No human being belongs in our filthy neglected deadly NYC jails. We are outraged that there is now a city plan to hide these crimes and shut avenues of transparency. The Mayor must shut down Rikers immediately to save lives.”

Ramik Jamar Williams, Co-Executive Director of Kings Against Violence Initiative, said: “Many of us have direct connections to the atrocities that occur daily at Rikers Island and know firsthand the horrible, inhumane conditions that exist there. These conditions have gone on for decades and worsen with time. We demand the mayor prioritize closing Rikers Island and stop delaying a court order to close the facility. Equally, as an organization grounded in Equity and Public Health principles, we call on a complete reconfiguration of the Department of Corrections, including staff training, hiring practices, and abysmal leadership. Only with a new model can the system transform from punitive oppressive punishment into rehabilitation.”

Caitlin Garbo, Manager of Public Policy & Advocacy at the National Alliance on Mental Illness of New York City (NAMI-NYC), said: “People at Rikers – more than half of whom are affected by mental illness and almost 17% of whom have a serious mental health diagnosis – are far too often not receiving the treatment they need and are subjected to inhumane, unsafe conditions, including solitary confinement. They are not in the right place for the treatment they need.” 

Sharon McLennon Wier, Ph.D., MSEd., CRC, LMHC, Executive Director of Center for Independence of the Disabled, said: “The Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York (CIDNY) advocates for all people with disabilities living in the city of New York. We know that disabled people with mental health disabilities, learning disabilities, medical disabilities, and behavioral health disabilities are at times incarcerated at Rikers Island. These individuals must receive the accommodations, treatments, and services needed to fully participate in their legal process. Disability-related accommodations are essential civil rights.”

Kaeshalee Vega, member of the Katal Center, said: “As the fight to shut down Rikers continues, I constantly worry about the equity and mental health of the men and women being confined under terrible conditions. So many lives have been lost on Rikers Island and it’s concerning that the Mayor and others in high-ranking positions don’t appear to be as committed to reforming the system for the better. A lot of the corruption that goes on in Rikers Island has been spoken about and unveiled but the community is not seeing or hearing about a change in the culture of Rikers. In fact, more lives have been lost and the services and conditions remain inhumane and unbearable. Rikers continues to break and tarnish the family dynamics of minorities of all ages. Rikers must be shut down, and until it is, the federal court must take action to save lives.”

Michael McQuillan, Member of the Social Justice Committee at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, said: “We rally to embody the holidays’ values by shining light at the darkness on Rikers while calling for the appointment of a Federal Receiver to take charge of the jails where 6000 people (twice the capacity) are unconstitutionally detained while assaulted, taunted, neglected and die. Concurrent foreign wars must not divert us from the covert war on Rikers.”

Henry Robinson, Leader at the Katal Center, said: “I was incarcerated at Rikers, and I have been exposed to the horrors and violence found at the tortuous jail complex. Absolutely no human being deserves to go there. Mayor Eric Adams has chosen not to take action to protect those being detained behind bars in NYC. Under this mayor, there have been at least 28 people that have died while in DOC custody. It’s sad to witness a time when not even tragedy after tragedy can make our appointed leaders come to our aid! Rikers Island is a hellhole and needs to be stopped and destroyed. Mayor Adams, it is time to step up and shut down Rikers.  Until this Mayor shuts down Rikers, we need the federal courts to appoint an independent receiver to save lives and improve conditions.”

Luz Del Rosario, parent of someone recently incarcerated at Rikers, said: “Two years ago my son was incarcerated at Rikers Island. His experience in that jail complex was traumatizing. I remember him calling me to tell me that he couldn’t take the terrible conditions and the violence anymore. He would beg me to help him get out because he couldn’t spend another day in there. He even had thoughts about taking his own life. He was beaten many times, they would bust his lips and hit him. As a mother, you never want to see your child go through that kind of injustice. Being detained at Rikers Island is like being handed down a death sentence. Ever since Mayor Eric Adams took office, at least 28 people have died in New York City jails. Stop the injustice. The federal court must intervene and appoint a receiver to improve its conditions.” (this quote was translated from Spanish)

Melanie Dominguez, Lead Organizer at the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice, said: “Under Mayor Eric Adams, the conditions at Rikers have worsened, and at least 28 incarcerated people have died in NYC jails. The Dept. of Corrections is riddled with corruption and dysfunction. The federal monitor has raised the alarm about the deteriorating conditions, and in response, Mayor Adams and his appointees have instead worked to reduce transparency and stymie the monitor’s work. It is heartbreaking that we have lost so many lives. It is clear that now more than ever, we need to shut down Rikers. There is no time to waste! That’s why Katal members have been organizing across the city to demand immediate action on Rikers. And it’s why we’re here today, to demand that until Rikers is shut down, the federal courts must appoint an independent receiver to improve conditions and save lives.”

About the campaign: #ShutRikers is a campaign of the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice. Katal and our allies are working to cut the correctional populations and the budgets used for caging people; shut down Rikers Island; and invest in real public safety: housing, health care, education, and jobs. 

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