Conditions on Rikers Island have been deteriorating in recent months. The Department of Corrections has confirmed that 12 people have died while held in custody in New York City jails this year, with most of those deaths taking place on Rikers. Two inmates have died within the past week. There have long been calls to shutter Rikers, with Mayor Bill de Blasio backing the move, but the plan has yet to move forward. Several New York congressional members sent a letter to Governor Kathy Hochul and de Blasio last Tuesday calling for Rikers to be closed immediately and for those incarcerated there to be released. The mayor visited the island on Monday afternoon, for the first time in four years.
Intelligencer spoke to Corey Stoughton, attorney-in-charge at the special litigation unit of the Legal Aid Society, about the current situation on Rikers, what she’s heard from her clients, and her perspective on the response from state and city politicians to the current crisis.
For the benefit of those who might not be aware or following it closely, what is the current situation like on Rikers Island?
It’s hard to find the words to describe how bad it is right now on Rikers Island. I think most people understand that jails and prisons are not pleasant places. But this is a level of depravity and inhumanity that is really shocking to imagine happening in the greatest city in the world.
You have people who are warehoused in large rooms for days and even weeks at a time with no toilets or showers, defecating on the floor, urinating on the floor. Not getting access to regular food or adequate water. And for a population that has, really, an overwhelming number of medical and mental-health-care needs, not getting access to basic and necessary medical and mental-health care. And so that’s why we’ve seen [all the deaths] this year, two in the past week alone, and it’s because people who are sick can’t get doctors and die for lack of medical care, urgent medical care. And people are in mental-health crisis, self-harming and even dying by suicide, because basic protocols around mental-health screening and self-harm prevention are not being followed.
What have you been hearing personally from your own clients? Has it been hard getting into contact with them?
It has been harder than usual, and I worry everyday about the stories we’re not hearing. But the stories we are hearing are truly horrendous. Every day, I hear from our criminal defense lawyers who are the trial attorneys representing people accused of criminal charges in the city. I’ve had lawyers tell me that they are watching their clients decompensate — you know, when you’re having a mental-health breakdown, right in front of their eyes in a booth and the correction officer is doing nothing about it. Family members calling lawyers saying, I got a phone call from my son or husband or brother saying that he’s very very ill and hasn’t been able to get to a doctor in weeks. We run a hotline from the jail. We have for many, many, many years. We see these calls regularly, but the quantity and the level of desperation for the past several months has been really unparalleled.
There’s been a large focus on the pandemic and the effect that the coronavirus has had at Rikers and throughout the prison system, but what were conditions like prior to the pandemic?
A really critical thing to understand about what’s happening is that it’s a crisis layered on top of a crisis. Rikers is supposed to be closing, and for very good reason. Rikers is a terrible place. It’s designed poorly; it’s falling apart. It is very challenging to manage as a correctional institution. But instead of closing it, for the past year or more, instead of the gradual reductions in population that were meant to create the pathway to closing Rikers, the city has jammed it with more and more people. And that’s been steadily building for more than a year. During the height of the pandemic, the jail population dropped to its lowest level, historic low levels. But, in the past year, it has sprung back up, and it’s higher now than it was even before the pandemic. And that’s the opposite trajectory that was supposed to happen. So the population at Rikers was already taxing the system in a way that was causing harm, that was stressing medical and mental-health-care systems, that was straining the physical plans so unsanitary conditions were growing. And that was the crisis that was brewing underneath the surface.
And then, over the past several months, what’s happened, I think, is that the correction officers have just had enough. And, at some level, you kinda can’t blame them. Rikers is a terrible place to work, and it’s an even worse place for our clients to live. So the correction officers stopped going to work and that took a decrepit, barely functional, inhumane system and turned it into a hellhole. The thing to understand about being in a jail or a prison is that every aspect of your life depends upon a correction officer. You can’t go to the toilet, to the shower, to get a meal, to the doctor, to rehabilitation services, to court to meet your lawyer, without a correction officer taking you from one place to another. So when there’s not enough correction officers, everything breaks down. And that is the crisis that was layered on top of the already disastrous situation that Rikers was even a few months ago.
It feels like a lot of the focus has been on the staffing situation, but do you think that the overall problems are getting lost?
Yes, I do, and it’s really important not to call this a staffing-shortage problem because it isn’t. There’s plenty of staff. The staff don’t want to go to work. They don’t want to go to work because Rikers is an indefensibly terrible place. A lot of the mayor’s response, and even the commissioner’s response, has been to focus on hiring new staff. And what I worry about is what happens when those new staff come in and, like the old staff, realize that coming to work is a terrible idea, and they stop coming to work. I said this on the radio the other day, but if the foundation of your house is crumbling, and the whole infrastructure is breaking such that the windows all smash because your house is sinking into the ground, it’s like going in and saying, “Oh, we’d better replace the windows really quick.” You have to fix the foundation. And so I do think that this focus on correction officers, it’s somewhat distracting from the real problems and, frankly, from the fundamental need to reduce the population and close Rikers, which we should’ve been doing and focusing on all along.
With the closing of Rikers — that’s obviously something that would take months and years to implement, and there’s currently an immediate crisis. What are the changes that need to be made in the short term while working toward an eventual closure?
Here’s the problem: Even with all of the attention that has been generated in the past few weeks on this issue and all the pressure that the mayor and the commissioner are under to fix the system, they can’t fix it because the system is so broken. Or at least, they can’t fix it fast enough to stop the cascade of death. We’ve had two deaths this week. The question that people have to answer is: “What’s going to prevent the next deaths?” And the only answer, the only real answer, is getting people out of this dangerous place. You can add more staff; you can solve the problems with the correction-officers union; you can fix locks on doors. You can do those things, these bureaucratic fixes. Those will take time. There’s so much chaos and dysfunction that all of those steps are going to take time. And in the meantime, someone else is going to die.
Again, I’ve gotta go back to the fact that population has skyrocketed when it shouldn’t have, and in a system that can’t handle the stress. I just don’t think that any of those steps that they’re announcing are gonna work unless it’s also accompanied by a reduction in population, because the large number of people that are in Rikers, too many for what it can handle, is the root cause here. So the thing that will get people out of harm’s way, and the thing that will get the population to a manageable level so that they can better solve the root causes here, is to get people out of Rikers Island. We’ve had some small successes on that front in the past few weeks. Governor Hochul signing the “Less Is More Act” and then immediately impartially implementing it by removing almost 200 people who were held on technical parole violations was a really important step forward. We still have hundreds of people who are held in Rikers today on technical parole violations or minor parole violations when the criminal offense that they committed would not otherwise have put them in Rikers but for the parole hold. And Governor Hochul and the state could get those people out immediately, and they haven’t. And we have hundreds of people who are held on city sentences that the mayor continues to refuse to release to work-release even though he did that during the pandemic, and this situation is far more dangerous and life-threatening than Rikers was during the height of the pandemic.
And then the third problem is that we have, in court today — we have prosecutors and judges that are continuing to send people on nonviolent offenses to Rikers Island, into harm’s way, when they could set them free to await their trial. Or they could do electronic monitoring or other forms of supervised release that evidence shows is just effective at getting people back to court for the next appearance. And we just haven’t seen enough acknowledgement from these regular players in the criminal legal system that we have to make decisions differently when Rikers is this dangerous.
I just want to say there are some exceptions to that. Eric Gonzalez, the district attorney in Brooklyn, has acknowledged that we have to make decisions differently. And he has promised to review bail decisions in light of how dangerous Rikers is. So there are some people starting to acknowledge this, but I’ve gotta tell you. I see minutes from court proceedings and bail hearings every day and I see judges turning an absolute blind eye and even saying to attorneys, “I don’t want to hear about Rikers. I don’t want to hear about it.” That’s a huge problem. It’s just a huge problem.
Mayor Bill de Blasio is going to visit Rikers. What are your thoughts on that, and what do you hope comes from his visit?
I’m so glad he’s visiting. Anyone who has power in the system must visit. They must see what they are doing. They must see what sending someone to this place really means, because the not-seeing part of it is what allows people to die. I’m very glad he’s going. I don’t think that any person can see what he will see when he goes and not be radicalized by it and really driven to pick up every lever you can to fix this problem. And he has a lot of levers right at his fingertips that he could pull to save lives, and I’m hopeful he will do that.
(Update: Mayor de Blasio toured Rikers Island on Monday afternoon but did not speak with any inmates or corrections officers. At a press conference afterwards, de Blasio said that the situation “upsets” him and that “we have a hell of a lot of work to do” at the facility — but he declined to offer any specifics about what he had seen or what he plans to do to address it.)
This interview has been edited for length and clarity, and this post has been updated to summarize Mayor de Blasio’s Monday press conference.