Chaos reigns at New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail, with inmates essentially running the crumbling facility, including one who recently hijacked an unattended bus filled with prisoners left with keys inside, and crashed it into a wall, new reports allege.
The sprawling jail complex, housing on average of 4,800 inmates, has long been in the throes of what advocates have deemed a ‘humanitarian crisis.’ Rikers Island’s current conditions have ignited protests and calls from lawmakers to shut it down permanently.
Since the beginning of the year, a dozen city inmates have died in custody, most of them at Rikers.
Chaos and violence reign at Rikers Island jail in New York City, prompting calls from lawmakers and advocates to shut it down
What has been happening inside the sprawling jail has been called a ‘humanitarian crisis’
The facility is said to be severely run down and unsafe for inmates and staff
The city´s jail system, troubled by years of neglect, has spiraled into turmoil during the coronavirus pandemic with a spike in inmate deaths, violence, self-harm and staff absences.
In one instance, a corrections officer was accused of slipping a razor to an inmate, and in another, an inmate stabbed his neighbor after kicking in a grate in his cell.
An expose by the New York Times published Monday revealed that inmates have been allowed to roam the jail free, attack staff and each other, and break every conceivable rule, often under the indifferent gaze of officers.
In mid-September, inmate Abubakar Sanuwo, 20, was on a bus at the Anna M. Kross Center at Rikers Island along with five other men, when two officers allegedly left them without supervision to get paperwork.
Records indicate that inmates at the jail control large portions of the facility and roam free
Since the beginning of the year, a dozen inmates died in city jails, most of them at Rikers
Inmates have been stealing keys from jails to free other detainees, often leading to violent attacks
Sanuwo, who was handcuffed in the front, was able to get into the driver’s seat, put the bus into drive and slam it into a wall.
Sanuwo, who was charged with burglary and robbery, reportedly was injured, along with the other inmates and two correction officers.
Last week, correction officer Travis Simms, 33, was charged with official misconduct and two counts of promoting prison contraband after he was allegedly spotted handing a razor blade to Rikers Island inmate Jonathan Sanchez, reported New York Post.
Department of Corrections Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi called the incident ‘unconscionable, illegal and dangerous.’
Records and interviews conducted by the Times show that in some parts of the jail, inmates have seized near complete control and decide who gets to enter or leave.
Inmates have been known to enter restricted areas, answer phones instead of guards, steal keys to free other detainees, and smoke cigarettes and marijuana.
During one incident in August, an inmate stole keys from a jailer, freed another detainee and slashed the guard’s neck with a knife, prompting him to seek refuge in his attacker’s own jail cell.
Protesters gather in front of the Manhattan DA’s office to call for the closing of Rikers Island
A couple of weeks later, another inmate stabbed his neighbor after climbing out of his cell through a metal grate in the wall.
The Times documented more than a dozen instances since July, in which inmates were allowed to wander around the jail unrestricted, resulting in multiple acts of violence.
Following a fight in June 2020, an inmate walked out of an unlocked area, grabbed a can of pepper spray that was left unattended by a guard and deployed it against jail staff.
In August 2020, a jailhouse nurse was beaten by an inmate who was able to open a security gate, leaving her in need of surgery.
Last month, four members of Congress from New York demanded the release of inmates and closure of Rikers Island jail complex.
Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jerry Nadler, Jamaal Bowman and Nydia Velázquez called conditions at the jail ‘deplorable and nothing short of a humanitarian crisis,’ in a letter to New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
House members wrote that the jail has failed to provide inmates with basic services and protection against the spread of COVID-19, and lawmakers on a recent visit to the facility found conditions that were ‘life-threatening and horrific.’
Mayor Bill De Blasio announced measures in mid-September that included requiring jail guards to get a doctor’s note if they miss work for more than one day or face suspension without pay
They reported overflowing toilets and floors covered in dead cockroaches, feces and rotting food. State Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas said inmates told her they felt like they were being treated like slaves and animals.
Officials have said deteriorating conditions at the jail came amid a slowdown in court proceedings, leaving more inmates incarcerated while awaiting trial, and chronic staff shortages.
At one point this summer, more than one-third of the city’s jail guards were on sick leave or medically unfit to work with inmates. Some guards missed shifts without any explanation.
De Blasio announced measures in mid-September that included requiring jail guards to get a doctor’s note if they miss work for more than one day or face suspension without pay.
A week after the mayor announced the crackdown, an inmate wandering freely around Rikers was slashed in the face by another detainee wielding a makeshift knife
Hochul later signed legislation that largely eliminated the practice of incarcerating people for technical parole violations. The Democratic governor also said she was asking the state parole board to immediately release 191 people and move 200 sentenced inmates to state facilities.
The Department of Correction said it ‘is tirelessly working to continue improving conditions on Rikers, including releasing eligible people under the Less is More Act, increasing accountability for absent staffers, expediting intake to create more space, and using emergency contracting to secure quick repairs and deep cleaning.’
Michael Skelly, a spokesperson for the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, representing the jail guards, encouraged members of Congress concerned about Rikers to use their power to expedite building new jails, plans for which have been met with community opposition.
Skelly said those jails won’t open until 2027 at the earliest and combined they’d have a maximum capacity of 3,300 inmates.
De Blasio’s annual accounting of city agencies released last month showed sharply higher rates of violence and increased mental health concerns among inmates in the city’s jails compared with previous years. Serious injuries to inmates and assaults on staff also jumped.
According to the report, more than half of inmates across the city’s jails had a mental health diagnosis and 16.5 per cent of inmates had a serious mental health diagnosis.
Meanwhile, uniformed personnel at the jails has plummeted, from a staff of 10,862 in the 2017 fiscal year to 8,388 in 2021. The guard’s union says 7,600 of staff are correctional officers and the rest are in supervisory roles. About 1,200 officers have resigned since January 2019, the union said.