Hunger strike amid human rights crisis at NYC's Rikers Island

Posted on January 31st, 2022 by Bill Weinberg and tagged , , , .

RikersNew York’s new mayor has inherited a real human rights crisis at Rikers Island, the city’s principal jail, with desperate inmates launching hunger strikes in protest of oppressive and dangerous conditions. Promises by the previous administration to close the facility saw insufficient action, “decarceration” advocates charge. But with the new admin, the situation may be going from bad to worse.

The long campaign to close Rikers Island, the isolated East River jail complex that is New York City’s principal lock-up, has clearly reached an inflection point.

The previous administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio had actually adopted the rhetoric of “decarceration” in its plan to shut down the complex by 2027. This was presented as part of a general reconsideration of the War on Drugs and the aggressive policing of the Giuliani era, when “Fun City” was the cannabis arrest capital of the nation. Indeed, cannabis arrests in the city have dropped precipitously, as has the population of Rikers—from over 20,000 during the Rudy Giuliani mayoralty in the 1990s to some 5,400 today.

But cannabis arrests did continue under de Blasio—some of them quite brutal. And the racial disparity persisted in the continuing if greatly diminished arrests.

Finally, the COVID-19 shut-down of the city in 2020 and its long aftermath of economic suffering have brought an atmosphere redolent of the bad old days in the 1980s. Violent crime, which had been at low ebb for a generation, is again rising. And 16 inmate deaths last year speak to the depth of dysfunction at Rikers and the city’s other jails.

At this foreboding moment, a new mayor was sworn in on New Year’s Day. Former Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams is the city’s second African American mayor—but also an ex-cop, who played to tough-on-crime sentiment during the campaign. Just after he was sworn in, passive resistance began to emerge among Rikers inmates. And, so far, the new mayor’s responses have not been encouraging.

Hunger strikes amid danger and degradation
Some 200 Rikers inmates started a hunger strike on Jan. 7, local media reported.

The New York Times spoke to 11 detainees, who described dangerous conditions as the temperature dropped and COVID-19 continued its spread throughout the complex. Over 370 detainees had recently tested positive for the virus, and less than half of the facility’s total population is fully vaccinated, the Times reported.

“It just gets worse and worse,” inmate Nelson Pinero told the paper, saying that vermin such as mice and water bugs frequently interrupted his sleep. “I don’t wish this upon nobody.”

Lack of medical care was also a significant grievance. City Councilmember Tiffany Cabán, whose district includes Rikers, testified before the Board of Correction in January that she spoke to an inmate on an unannounced visit who told her the only way he could see a mental health professional was if he cut himself and was placed on suicide watch. Incidents of self-harm at Rikers soared last year.

The conservative New York Post was quick to highlight official denials. “There is no hunger strike,” a Department of Correction spokesperson told the Post on Jan. 12. “A group of detainees were refusing institutional food and instead eating commissary food. The warden is engaged with them and addressing their concerns, and our employees have been working tirelessly to keep all who work and live in our facilities safe.” reached Lupe Todd-Medina, spokesperson for New York County Defender Services, a group that provides legal representation for low-income New Yorkers, and has been in touch with some of the strikers.

Todd-Medina said the strikes that began Jan. 7 lasted about a week, during which time the inmates were not accepting food delivered to their cells (the mess areas being closed as a COVID containment measure), but were “sustaining off of commissary.” However, she emphasized: “Because of COVID restrictions, they were not filing the commissary. And many people in Rikers are poor or indigent, and if you don’t have family providing money for you to have commissary, you don’t have commissary. So for many of them it was very, very limited food. We got calls from people who had fainted. Some got sick. ”

Indeed, the failure to get regular meals delivered to cells since the closing of the mess areas was among the grievances that sparked the strike. “One of the complaints was not getting food regular,” says Todd-Medina. “One guy said, ‘I only got one meal today, the forgot to bring me my meal.’”

Other key grievances included no access to the exercise yard or law library—again, part of the COVID containment response. “Being able to go to the law library is important to prepare for a court date,” Todd-Medina says. “And you can’t go outside because you’re locked down because of COVID. After a month of this, they had hit their limit. They called attorneys and said, ‘We want you to get this out to media.’”

Some of the initiators of the strike were singled out for harassment. Ervin Bowins, who was quoted in the Daily News speaking on behalf of the strikers, subsequently faced a “campaign of retaliation,” New York County Defender Services said. He was removed from his personal cell and placed in a filthy and overcrowded intake area, where guards called him a “snitch” in front of the other inmates—knowing this would result in him getting roughed up. He suffered a black eye.

Todd-Medina says Bowins has now been moved off Rikers entirely to keep him away from the other inmates—transferred to the “jail barge” moored off the coast of the Bronx, officially as a temporary measure to relieve the overstretched Rikers facility.

Others who participated in the strike also faced retaliation, according to Todd-Medina—such as getting their cells “tossed” (ransacked) in ostensible searches for drugs or other contraband.

Todd-Medina says the first wave of strikes ended when jail authorities met some of the strikers’ demands, such as restoring library and yard privileges.

But a new wave of hunger strikes is now threatened—and may even already be underway.

Passive resistance behind bars
The NY Post reported Jan. 30 that a handwritten note was secretly circulated among inmates, urging them to go on hunger strike ahead of President Joe Biden’s planned arrival in New York in the coming week.

“All gangsters, gentlemen and stand up individuals, the courts and DOC [Department of Correction] are violating us every day, and our families are suffering for it as well,” read the letter, which is displayed in its original by the Post and was reportedly distributed in food carts among inmates at Rikers’ Robert N. Davoren Complex—the same building where the initial wave of strikes began.

“Courts are violating due process rights, giving us ransoms insted of bails! [Sic] What happen [sic] to bail reform?”

The letter accuses jail administrators of “messing with our mail, visits, recreation, medical, law library, commissary, living condition are bad, we have mold in housing area that can get us sick.”

It appeals for unity among the inmates to launch a facility-wide hunger strike ahead of Biden’s visit: “No matter if your [sic] gang-affiliated or neutral, were [sic] in this together! ...This time we need everyone to make this count! Lawyers are trying to get Biden to the Island, let’s do our part! (If we peacefully protest) like Martin Luther King, or Gandhi.” (Parenthesis in original)

Will Biden visit Rikers?
While it is unclear if the new hunger strikes ever started, New York County Defender Services has joined with the Legal Aid Society and other detainee advocacy groups to echo the demand that Biden visit Rikers.

The joint letter reads:

President Joseph Biden’s visit to New York City is an opportunity for this nation’s leader to witness firsthand the horrendous conditions New Yorkers endure each day on Rikers Island – conditions that should serve as a reminder of why incarceration is not a panacea for public safety concerns. New York City jails remain in an unprecedented and unmitigated humanitarian crisis that has no end in sight.

At a time when people are consistently denied basic medical and mental health care and are enduring inhumane and dangerous conditions, including an alarming increase in COVID-19 cases, we should be moving towards immediate decarceration. Focusing instead on discredited punitive and surveillance-based approaches that feed mass incarceration and send even more people into facilities that cannot keep them safe demeans democracy and endangers everyone. This should alarm all elected officials.

We call on President Biden to visit Rikers Island and bear witness to the ongoing human rights violations against incarcerated New Yorkers.

So far, media have only reported that Biden will visit the New York Police Department headquarters in Lower Manhattan, to discuss responses to the crime wave with Adams and NYPD brass.

Is Adams a step backwards?
First among the worrying steps since Adams became mayor is a move by his newly appointed Correction Commissioner Louis Molina to sack the department’s head of investigations—who had won praise from advocates (and ire from the guards’ union, the Correction Officers Benevolent Association) for aggressively tackling thousands of backlogged use-of-force cases.

Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence & Investigation Sarena Townsend undertook this work in collaboration with the independent monitor appointed by a federal court in 2015 in response to a class-action suit by inmates. The backlog of abuse cases stretches all the way back to 2017. During her three and a half years in office, Townsend started to process 8,800 of them. She was immediately asked to step down by Molina after he took over in January. A replacement has not yet been named.

Townsend later told the Daily News that she was abruptly fired after Molina demanded she “get rid of” an impossibly large number of pending use-of-force cases. She said Molina’s request she close 2,000 cases in 100 days was “crazy.”

Molina has also drawn criticism for relaxing the department’s emergency rule requiring guards who call out sick to check in for a physical exam with a city-contracted doctor. Then-Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi implemented the procedure last summer to deter officers from falsely claiming to be ill, as guards were staying off the job by the hundreds—exacerbating the crisis of understaffing at the already overstretched Rikers complex.

Schiraldi slammed Molina’s dropping of the policy, noting that 2,500 out of 7,700 uniformed staffers had claimed to be sick on Dec. 31. “Very disturbing sign from @NYCMayor Adams,” Schiraldi tweeted.

Even before taking office, Adams won harsh criticism for his call to re-instate use of solitary confinement as a punishment at Rikers—a practice that de Blasio had been working to put an end to by his final day in office, Dec. 31.

“They better enjoy that one-day reprieve because January 1st they are going back into segregation if they committed a violent act,” Adams said at a press conference announcing the appointment of Molina Dec. 16. The quip elicited laughter from an audience that included Correction Officers Benevolent Association officials, Gothamist reported.

Perhaps most ominous is Adams’ pledge to bring back the notorious Street Crime Unit, an NYPD plainclothes patrol that was disbanded exactly 20 years ago following a string of outrageous abuses. The most infamous was the slaying of Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea who was stopped by the SCU in the Bronx in February 1999. Officers fired 41 shots at him as he stood in the vestibule of his own apartment building. The cops later said they thought he was reaching for a gun. In fact, he’d been reaching for his wallet to show his ID. He was unarmed, and had committed no crime.

Adams pledges it will be different this time. “The plainclothes anti-gun unit is going to zero in on guns and gangs,” he said. “We’re going to use precision policing to identify the gang members, the crews. We're going to target them.”

But activists are skeptical, recalling the era of “stop-and-frisk” policing—a practice that was ended in 2013, after a federal court found it was racially biased and unconstitutional.

The “stop-and-frisk” policy, initiated by Giuliani, peaked in 2011, when Michael Bloomberg was mayor. That year, as WNYC Radio recalled, the NYPD stopped over 680,000 people—of whom only 9% were white. The overwhelming majority, estimated at 88%, hadn't committed any crime.

Activists fear a return to this policy, in addition to holding the threat of more abuses on the streets, could mean more Black and brown bodies behind bars at Rikers.

‘Rife with violence’
The last report by the court-appointed monitor for the city Correction Department, issued in June 2021, continued to see a “system that is rife with violence and disorder.” The 12th Report of the Nunez Independent Monitor (named for the class-action suit by Rikers inmates) found: “Data on uses of force, fights, stabbings, and slashings among people in custody and assaults on staff reveal that 2021 has been the most dangerous year since the Consent Judgment went into effect.”

Calling the Department an agency “in crisis,” the Independent Monitor charged that DoC “lacks the most rudimentary building blocks upon which progress could be built.” It found that “decades of poor practices has produced a maladaptive culture in which deficiencies are normalized and embedded in every facet of the Department’s work.”

Despite New York state’s new bail reform law, the vast majority of those held at Rikers continue to be pretrial detainees who have not been found guilty of the offense they were busted for. City authorities maintain that nobody is currently behind bars at Rikers on a cannabis-related charge. But among the appalling 15 inmates who died at the facility in 2021 (out of 16 who died in the city’s jails), at least one was indeed locked up following a pot bust. Isaabdul Karim, 42, who died of “natural causes” in the facility’s infirmary on Sept. 19, was sent to Rikers on a parole violation after he was arrested for public smoking and possession of cannabis in 2018.

Following last year’s passage of the Marijuana Taxation & Regulation Act in Albany, arrests for public smoking (even as a parole violation) are considerably less likely. But the ongoing nightmare at Rikers Island is stark testimony to how much work remains to be done for activists in the Empire State.

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Photo: Wikipedia



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