Chaos at infamous Rikers Island prison as detainees seize near total control over entire units, report says

Inmates in charge at Rikers buildings as long-suffering island correctional facility plagued by chaos

Sheila Flynn
in Denver
Tuesday 12 October 2021 14:37
Major changes for Rikers Island
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Dangerous and dysfunctional conditions at Rikers Island are “next level” and “worse than any torture chamber,” according to interviewees for a new exposé on the infamous New York prison where detainees have even allegedly taken control of some areas.

Rikers – an island jail complex comprising eight buildings just off Manhattan in the East River – has been under fire for decades for different human rights reasons. A New York Times investigation published Monday revealed the already-struggling system had reached unbelievable levels of pandemic-fuelled chaos, with detainees allegedly overseeing various segments and guards either refusing to show up or enact disciplinary policies.

“Rikers has long been dysfunctional, decrepit and dangerous,” Zachary Katznelson, executive director of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, told the Times.

“What we see today is next level. It is an inability to deliver even the basic services – something we haven’t seen in a long time, if not ever.”

According to the Times piece, incidents during this summer alone have included one case of a detainee hijacking a bus and ramming a building; another grabbing keys from a correction officer, slashing the guard’s face and neck; and still another kicking down a grate in his cell to crawl through and stab the man in the adjacent room.

“Rikers houses more than 4,800 detainees on a given day, a majority of whom are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime. Most do not commit violent acts, and a significant number struggle with mental illness,” the Times reported. “Twelve detainees, most on Rikers, have died this year, making 2021 the deadliest in New York City’s jail system since 2015.

“Four captains and eight correction officers have been punished for failing to perform their jobs properly in connection with those deaths.”

Last month, following the order by Governor Kathy Hochul to expand remote court hearings given the situation on Rikers, the ACLU of New York called conditions at the prison complex a “humanitarian disaster.”

In 2019, the city council voted to close the Rikers complex in its then-guise and plans were drawn up to replace it with four different correctional buildings. The decision followed a commission report two years earlier, headed by a retired New York judge, which issued recommendations ranging from the pre-trial release of more people to the total shutdown of the island.

That judge, Jonathan Lippman – writing in 2019 with Taylor Nims in Law360 – referred to the 2014 suicide of Kalief Browder, a Bronx teenager charged with stealing a backpack. The young man’s death further galvanised the movement for Rikers reform.

“Kalief spent three long years in various jails on Rikers, where he was brutalised by guards and other detainees alike, before the charges against him were dismissed,” the pair wrote. “Haunted by his experience on Rikers, he hanged himself after he was released. “

According to the latest Times investigation, the current “sheer lawlessness” inside the compound is difficult to fathom.

“Detainees in some buildings have seized near total control over entire units, deciding who can enter and leave the, records and interviews show,” the paper reported. “In other buildings, they have wandered in and out of staff break rooms and similarly restricted areas, with some flouting rules against smoking tobacco and marijuana.

“Sometimes they have answered phones that were supposed to be manned by guards. Several have stolen keys and used them to free others in custody, who went on to commit slashings and other acts of violence.”

Even before this week’s revelations, Lippman and Nims warned in 2019 that tragic stories such as Browder’s exemplified “not only the misery of the jails themselves, but also other problems in New York City’s justice system, including case delays that can last for years and a cash bail system that allows wealthy people to pay for their freedom while they await trial but locks up poor people who can’t afford to post bail.”

“These harms are disproportionately visited on people of colour, tearing apart families and communities. The human cost is enormous.”

“The financial cost of this dysfunctional system is also enormous: according to the New York City Comptroller, in 2018 the cost to house someone in a Rikers jail for a year was $302,000. The cost continues to rise,” they wrote.

A spokesman for the NYCLU told The Independent Monday it had nobody available to comment on the Times report.