More than 200 detainees at New York City’s infamous Rikers Island continue their hunger strike for the 10th consecutive day. The strike began on January 8 after detainees at the Robert N. Davoren Center started refusing food served by the Department of Correction to protest the deteriorating living conditions inside the prison complex.
Inmates have complained of indifference by officials regarding the risk of COVID-19 spread, rapidly dropping temperatures inside prison cells due to inadequate heating during winter, lack of proper hygiene and cleaning, and rising violence inside the prison, among other issues. Striking detainees are also demanding the resumption of recreational time and medical visits.
Despite the city spending close to USD 556,000 per prisoner in Rikers’ Island, the deteriorating conditions in the complex led to 16 custodial deaths in 2021 alone. The prison complex faced multiple crises including a strike by prison guards and officials in the middle of a staff shortage, a COVID-19 outbreak infecting hundreds, and multiple fires, making last year the deadliest since 2013.
In an interview with NPR, Alice Fontier, managing director of the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, one of several groups advocating for decarceration and shutting down the prison complex, said that the conditions in the island “have been deteriorating for the last several months.”
“There are very few officers working on the units, which means that, you know, the incarcerated people are left to fend for themselves. So safety and security are all but gone,” said Fontier.
The staffing shortage, partly because of low recruitment in the past several years, is exacerbated by the correctional officers’ concerted actions against scrutiny from city officials in cases where they call in sick or take leave in large numbers affecting essential services inside the prisons.
The island houses some of the key prison complexes of New York City, with a combined capacity of holding anywhere between 10,000 to 15,000 detainees a day. But as the crises spiraled since the outbreak of the pandemic, the numbers have come down to between 4,000 to 6,000 detainees per day.
An overwhelming majority of the detainees are being held in pre-trial detention, which is also common for most of the city’s prison systems. As per data published by the Vera Institute for Justice from the New York City Open Data Website, 81.8% of jailed people in the city were pre-trial detained as of October 8, 2021.
Even before the pandemic, the prison complex was ridden with issues such as staffing shortages, high levels of violence, and harsh living conditions. The pandemic only exacerbated the situation. Despite early release of hundreds of inmates in 2020 and 2021 under consideration of the pandemic, thousands of unvaccinated and at-risk people continue to be admitted and detained in the island.
The Omicron-induced surge has brought the number of infections inside the prison to over 370 in the past few weeks, with case positivity rate climbing up as high as 17% in the last week of December. At the same time, only close to 38% of the inmates were fully vaccinated, creating conditions that prompted state legislators who visited the jail in September 2021 to call the complex “horror island”.
NYC’s recently elected mayor Eric Adams has maintained silence on the matter, with the city administration’s Department of Corrections releasing a statement last week arguing that there is no hunger strike and that detainees are only refusing food from services run by the department. The department also insisted that inmates were sharing commissary food, but is yet to release any response on the striking inmates’ condition.
On the other hand, prison officials are taking retributive measures against the strike organizers. One of the strike leaders, Earvin Bowins, is confirmed to have been abruptly transferred to another facility in the island.
Mayor Adams has conceded to several demands by the Correction Captains Association, the union representing correctional officers, including replacing the city commissioner of the Department of Corrections earlier this month. He in turn rolled back restrictions on sick leaves and also expelled the department’s chief internal investigator who has been dealing with over 2,000 discipline cases against prison officials.
Joanne Page of the Fortune Society, an organization working for prison reforms in the city, in a recent op-ed criticized both the mayor and the prison officials’ union for shielding those causing neglect of the inmates.
“The lessons learned by those people at Rikers who are put into a situation of predator or prey is a formula for unleashing violence into our most vulnerable neighborhoods and must be corrected,” Page argued.
Activists and some local politicians have been calling for the shut down of the complex for years. Both the state and city administrations had announced in 2019 that the island prison complex would be closed by 2026. But despite bail reforms and other measures to cut down the number of inmates, the crisis in the island has only grown.