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Countless words have been written over the years, many by this board, illustrating the barbarity of the jail complex at Rikers Island and demanding its closure. The latest entry came this week, in a tweet thread by a New York State assemblywoman, Emily Gallagher, who attended a tour for elected officials and left in shock, calling the facility “a humanitarian crisis” and “a horror house of abuse and neglect.”
“There’s garbage everywhere, rotting food with maggots, cockroaches, worms in the showers, human feces and piss,” Ms. Gallagher wrote. “Most of the toilets are broken so men are given plastic bags to relieve themselves in.”
“I met multiple men with broken hands and legs that were not being treated,” she continued.
So far in 2021, 10 inmates at Rikers have died, at least four by suicide. More than half of the inmates have received mental health services, and as of last year, nearly one in five had been diagnosed with a serious mental illness.
Meanwhile, corrections officers are calling in sick en masse — nearly 1,800 on Wednesday alone — leaving their colleagues to work double and triple shifts and effectively ceding control of parts of the complex to gangs.
This is everyday life in New York City’s largest jail, despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vow to close it for good. The plan to replace Rikers — possibly delayed by the Covid pandemic — involves an $8.7 billion effort to rebuild three outdated detention facilities in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan to make them more sanitary and secure. A jail is scheduled for construction in the Bronx. Jails in communities have numerous advantages over a centralized facility on a difficult-to-access island. Whatever critics from the left or right may exclaim, New York is not going to go without jail cells. But it can approach incarceration in a far more humane way.
Mr. de Blasio first promised in 2017 to close Rikers — the last time he visited the island. More than four years later and with only months remaining in his term, the situation is as dire as it’s ever been. In May, a report by a federal monitor described a “pervasive level of disorder and chaos” in the city’s jail system; within three months, the monitor filed an update to say that the situation had worsened significantly, with regular violent attacks against both inmates and guards. “The city has completely lost control,” said Mary Lynne Werlwas, the director of the Prisoner’s Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society.
On Tuesday, Mr. de Blasio announced a plan to address the immediate staffing crisis by shifting more corrections officers from the courts to Rikers and threatening to suspend those who skip work without an excuse. He also called on judges to release as many as 250 people serving less than a year for nonviolent crimes — even though he has the power to release them himself.
These are all stopgaps that fail to address the underlying problem: New York, like the rest of the country, locks up far too many people for no good reason. Mr. de Blasio likes to point out that the city’s jail population is roughly half the size it was when he took office, but it’s still much too big: close to 6,000 people at the moment. Taxpayers are charged nearly half a million dollars per year to incarcerate each of these people — the vast majority of whom haven’t even had a trial yet. Others are locked up on technical parole violations, like forgetting to check in with their supervisor. This is an absurd expense, especially when some evidence shows that pretrial detention for even a few days makes someone more likely to commit a crime, not less.
This number could be significantly lower if Mr. de Blasio and other politicians had not gotten cold feet about New York’s bail reform law, which passed in 2019, eliminating cash bail for most misdemeanor and nonviolent felony arrests. It was a long-overdue fix meant to keep people from being locked up simply for being poor. But the law was rolled back even before it could have an effect, thanks to a relentless scaremongering campaign by the police, prosecutors and some lawmakers who exploited a few high-profile crimes — a well-worn tactic to block any efforts to make the criminal justice system fairer and more effective. But bail reform’s opponents ignore the basic facts: Crime in New York City is still far lower than it was in 1991, when the city’s daily jail population was more than triple what it is today.
New York needs to give bail reform a chance to succeed. Albany should also revive the Less Is More Act, which would prevent people on parole from being sent to jail for technical violations. The Legislature passed the law this year; Gov. Kathy Hochul needs to finish the job that her predecessor did not and sign it into law.
It’s time for Mr. de Blasio to visit Rikers Island again and to show the inmates and guards, by his presence, that he cares about alleviating the atrocious conditions they live and work under. They are part of this city, too.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.
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