Rikers Island Prison is both appalling and generously funded
ISAABDUL KARIM, 42, was the 11th person to die on Rikers Island, New York’s penal colony, this year. “It shouldn’t be there in the first place,” says Corey Stoughton of the Legal Aid Society, which provides free legal aid to the poor. Mr Karim was sent to New York’s largest prison in August for a minor violation of his parole, although his parole ends in June. He was detained in the “reception unit” for ten days. He slept in his wheelchair and contracted covid-19 in a crowded space. The city’s corrections department said his death seemed natural. Since then, another inmate has died on Rikers.
The death toll from covid-19 continues to rise – our tracking of excess mortality shows that the daily deaths from the virus in America are higher than in all other rich countries combined. Prisons, often overcrowded, poorly ventilated and where the value of life is low, have been particularly affected. Yet Rikers is something else. He stands out as an example of how some institutions are irreformable.
Jessica González-Rojas, member of the National Assembly, saw a detainee attempt to kill himself during a recent visit. She also saw unrecovered garbage and vermin and had to step over feces and urine. The inmate told her not to be fed and not to receive medical treatment. This isn’t exactly news: the island has been mismanaged for a very long time, says Jullian Harris-Calvin of the Vera Institute of Justice, a think tank. The city council voted in 2019 to close Rikers permanently by 2027. Bail reform means fewer people have been sent to the island. As of April 2020, partly because of covid, fewer than 4,000 were incarcerated there, down from 11,000 when Bill de Blasio, the mayor, took office in 2014.
Rikers seemed to be an old problem, and was even sometimes presented as a model for managing the prison population. More recently, the numbers have risen again, to 6,000. At the same time, correctional officers have stopped going to work. New York City guards are allowed to take unlimited sick days, and up to a third sick call on any given day, requiring those on duty to work double and triple shifts. There are not enough guards to transport detainees to court hearings, further extending stays at Rikers.
The misery in Rikers is not for lack of resources. The prison’s population halved between 2012 and 2020, but its budget increased by 24%. It costs $ 438,000 to jail a person for a year. Of this $ 379,216 goes to personnel costs; less than 5% go to services like drug addiction treatment. The average salary for guards after five and a half years of work is $ 92,073. In 2012, the inmate / officer ratio in the city was 7/5. In 2020, it was 1.6 officers per inmate.
And yet, the island’s chief medical officer said he was witnessing “a collapse of basic prison operations”. On September 29, a federal judge issued an emergency order to protect the well-being of detainees. Ms Harris-Calvin says the only way to fix the Rikers is to “get the people out of this island”. New York politicians and prosecutors seem to agree. Manhattan AD suspended bail for non-violent crime. Kathy Hochul, the new governor of New York, issued an executive order authorizing virtual hearings on Rikers. She also signed a bill that will remove minor bail offenses, such as breaking a curfew, from being locked up. It doesn’t come into effect until next year, but 191 people were released immediately. Mr. Karim was eligible, but missed the deadline by one day. ■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the title “Robbery”