The notorious jail complex Rikers Island is the site of an ongoing human rights crisis. More than 80 percent of the people confined there have not been convicted of a crime and endure horrific conditions as they wait for trial. On the inside, crumbling infrastructure, staffing deficits, and the pandemic have made life even more dangerous and degrading. On the outside, family members are desperate for information, as backlogged courts leave their loved ones indefinitely trapped in inhumane conditions.

VOCAL-NY, a grassroots organization that seeks to end mass incarceration, is among the many groups fighting to end the suffering. "Rikers Island must close,” said Keli Young, VOCAL-NY’s civil rights campaign coordinator. “We demand the same energy and urgency that went into the unconstitutional caging of our people and destabilization of our communities be poured into making them whole again. This requires permanent investments in housing, health care, and meaningful alternatives to policing and incarceration that truly address the root causes of harm in our communities."

Vera asked three leaders from VOCAL-NY to share what it’s like to be incarcerated or to have a loved one incarcerated on Rikers Island. These are their stories.

16 people died on Rikers Island in 2021.

Eileen's Story

VOCAL-NY Leader Eileen Maher could not afford to post $75,000 bail, so she spent 420 days on Rikers Island while awaiting trial. She eventually pled guilty to a jewelry theft she maintains she did not commit, because she felt her sanity was at risk if she remained in the jail complex. She is protesting for closure of the jail complex.

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In there, you are no longer a human being. The corrections officers said this to us on a daily basis, “You are not real anymore. You are less than human.” It is not just what they verbalize to you, it is every little practice. From not being able to use the bathroom without people observing you, to the frisks and searches that are done. When they would search everything, they would take your photos, and they would throw milk on them. They would destroy things that people’s kids had drawn for them. It was just to dehumanize people as much as possible and break down your psyche. Even though it was hard, I would pray and meditate. Every time they would say, “You are not a real person,” I would go into a zone and tell myself, “They are not telling you the truth. This is all being done to boost their own self-esteem. They are just saying things to break you.” The corrections officers are being trained that the people they are dealing with are not regular human beings. If we are less than human, they rationalize that what is happening to us is okay.

The overall attitude is really like, “You get what you deserve.” They just remove responsibility from themselves. They call themselves the Department of Corrections, but they're not correcting anything. They complain about weapons [and] drugs and blame it on visitors, but for over a year there haven't been visitors. So how has all this stuff been getting in? The bulk of the tools people would use for violence and for drug use are being trafficked in by the staff. They’ll do it for a price, whether financially or sexually. Rikers is just an environment of corruption and negativity. When you say maybe they should be a little more empathetic or maybe they should be providing different services—or any services—the answer is always, “Well, you shouldn't have come here.”

As of October 2021, more than 52,000 criminal cases were pending in New York City courts. Of the 5,400 people detained on Rikers Island at that time, approximately 1,700 had been waiting for more than a year to go to trial.
More people died by suicide on Rikers Island in 2021 than in the past five years combined.
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As of October 2021, more than 52,000 criminal cases were pending in New York City courts. Of the 5,400 people detained on Rikers Island at that time, approximately 1,700 had been waiting for more than a year to go to trial.

Occasionally Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous would come in and do meetings. There were no regular programs. You can’t do anything to improve yourself. The food—oh my God—it's terrible. Sometimes what they pass off as meat products, I couldn't even tell what animal it came from. They have chicken twice a week, which are actual pieces of chicken. It's the only actual discernible real meat. It could become a very corrupt process where people who are working in the food services start hoarding and stealing it and giving better pieces to their friends and things like that. You have people that are literally fighting over pieces of chicken. But it's designed for that outcome. That is what they want from you. The title of the person who is giving out the food is “feeder." In a restaurant or even in fast food, they’re a “server.” I've worked in veterinarians’ offices offices and animal shelters, and they don’t even refer to people who feed the animals as a feeder. Every little word is kind of designed to dehumanize. Upstate they call it the chow, which is a military word. But in that world you're broken down, and then they build you back up again. In Rikers, they break you down, but there's no building. It is just one continuous loop of torture.

As of January 13, 2022, of the 5,548 people detained in New York City jails, including on Rikers Island and The Boat, a jail that floats in the East River near Rikers, 1,498 people had been held pretrial for more than a year.
As of January 13, 2022, of the 5,548 people detained in New York City jails, including on Rikers Island and The Boat, a jail that floats in the East River near Rikers, 1,498 people had been held pretrial for more than a year.

I had a $75,000 bail for grand larceny. I was a first-time nonviolent offender, over 35 years old, and I was stuck there. My family is very supportive and has a lot of love, but who has that kind of money just floating around right now? I wound up taking a plea just so I could get off the island. I wanted to get on with my life. I was literally climbing the walls.

As of January 13, 2022, of the 5,548 people detained in New York City jails, including on Rikers Island and The Boat, 82 percent–4,487 people–had not been convicted of a crime.
As of January 13, 2022, of the 5,548 people detained in New York City jails, including on Rikers Island and The Boat, 82 percent–4,487 people–had not been convicted of a crime.

Because of my high bail, I couldn't have one of the outside jobs where I worked in the library or whatever. So I was the person who cleaned the bathroom and showers. One night, right before we were going to bed, I had cleaned up the bathroom and I was getting ready to put a garbage bag liner in a canister. Someone went and took old, wet Oodles of Noodles and dumped it in the canister without a liner. It wasn't done intentionally, it was done because, you know, some people just don't have what you would call home skills. And I flipped out. I threw the garbage can across the bathroom and I started yelling and screaming. That's when I knew. I said, “I have to go home.”

My attorney had said to me, “I don't know how you are going to get home unless you either bail out or you take a plea.” So, I took a plea. Justice isn’t the right word for it. I got credit for time served at Rikers and was home in about a year. By the time I left there, I was literally gray. We were treated like old furniture or old clothes that you just store it in the attic or the basement. I wish that I could go and shut the place down right now.

Listen to Eileen
The median length of a court case in New York City was 542 days in August 2021, up from 297 days in August 2019. People who can afford to pay bail are allowed to await their trials at home. People who cannot buy their freedom are forced to wait for trial in Rikers’ deadly conditions.

Bilal's Story

VOCAL-NY Leader Bilal Malik’s relative, who has not been convicted of a crime, has been held on Rikers Island since before the COVID-19 pandemic began. His family lives in fear that he will contract the virus in the squalid, overcrowded conditions. They have little information about the timeline for his legal proceedings.

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The median length of a court case in New York City was 542 days in August 2021, up from 297 days in August 2019. People who can afford to pay bail are allowed to await their trials at home. People who cannot buy their freedom are forced to wait for trial in Rikers’ deadly conditions.

I have a relative who has been locked up there for over a year. With all this COVID, they are not having people go up in there, so we can’t see him.

During COVID, I have been nervous that he was going to catch it in there because it was such close quarters and things weren’t being run properly. I have been going to a lot of protests to close the facility down. It is not fair to have people locked up how they are.

He says there is no running water in the bathroom. You have three or four [people] using the shower area as a housing unit. It is a shame that people have to sit in their cells with no running water. They have to use plastic bags to relieve themselves. It’s hard to get to the mess hall. I don’t know if he is getting the right meals. Because of them being short with staff, the [incarcerated people] are running the facility. To me it is really crazy. His mother is upset because they really are not giving him services. He is upset because he misses his family. They really are not saying anything about his release or the grand jury or whatever. I don’t know if he’s indicted or not. He is just sitting there, idle. He has been there since before COVID. There might be a whole bunch of people locked up in Rikers who are just sitting there. The courts ain’t even all the way open yet.

On December 21, 2021, the COVID-19 positivity rate on Rikers was more than 17 percent. Only 38 percent of the people incarcerated at the time had been fully vaccinated against the virus.
On December 21, 2021, the COVID-19 positivity rate on Rikers was more than 17 percent. Only 38 percent of the people incarcerated at the time had been fully vaccinated against the virus.
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I fear for his safety. A lot of people are catching COVID in there. And a lot of people are probably walking around with COVID and don’t know it. The medical facility is probably not properly staffed anyway, especially if the people didn’t take their vaccine shots. I don’t know if he got a shot or not. I don’t know if they are giving it out in there. I don’t trust the medical care in Rikers. They are going to get paid if they show up and don’t do nothing. It’s a stressful situation, a lot of [incarcerated people] are stressing out. They are locked up for a long time and getting no justification. Rikers Island is like a special housing unit, with everybody locked in their cell. Everybody is locked in their cell because there ain’t enough officers to escort them to the mess hall and the yard. He is stuck in the cell for most of the day. Even if you are in a special housing unit, you are supposed to have one hour recreation. They don’t have enough officers to escort them to the yard.

You have to pay to get out and walk the streets. How are they going to pay bail? Dip into their loved one’s pocket? And how do you know if loved ones have enough money to spare? I think they should be released on their [own] recognizance. You are lucky I am not a judge. If I was a judge, I would be releasing guys that did not have a real serious case.

With VOCAL-NY, I go to the protests they have in Manhattan and the Bronx. Back in the ’70s when they closed down The Tombs [the colloquial nickname for three jails in lower Manhattan], even then, Rikers Island was overloaded. They were trying to get some of the people out of Rikers Island then. And it never got no better. Shut it down. They just need to shut it down, period.

At points during 2021, nearly a third of Rikers Island’s 8,400 corrections officers failed to report to work.

You have to pay to get out and walk the streets. How are they going to pay bail? Dip into their loved one’s pocket? And how do you know if loved ones have enough money to spare? I think they should be released on their [own] recognizance. You are lucky I am not a judge. If I was a judge, I would be releasing guys that did not have a real serious case.

With VOCAL-NY, I go to the protests they have in Manhattan and the Bronx. Back in the ’70s when they closed down The Tombs [the colloquial nickname for three jails in lower Manhattan], even then, Rikers Island was overloaded. They were trying to get some of the people out of Rikers Island then. And it never got no better. Shut it down. They just need to shut it down, period.

Listen to Bilal

Jovada's Story

Jovada Senhouse spent two months detained on Rikers Island because she could not afford $58,000 bail. She is a board member and leader for VOCAL-NY and advocates for the closure of the jail complex.

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Rikers Island is a torture chamber. It’s the worst place you could be. The corrections officers there don’t care about the [incarcerated people]. They’ll let you fight. They’ll bring in drugs. They treated us like dogs. Some dogs are treated better than we were treated as humans.

I went in for sales of controlled substance[s]. I am recovering now, but at that time I was an addict. They used to have my records, so they would call me “you damn crackhead” to belittle me. They not only cursed me out, but they’d see my visitors coming up and they’d say, “You got a crackhead baby too?” I am a sensitive person, and it hurt. It hurt so bad.

I went in with manic depression and high anxiety. I was bipolar. I didn’t get help for that in there. They treated me like I was less than. They provided me with no treatment. None at all.

At points during 2021, nearly a third of Rikers Island’s 8,400 corrections officers failed to report to work.

When you are locked behind those doors in a cell, oh my God, you could lose your mind up in there. That small room with that little iron toilet and a hard bed. It is just nasty. When it was wintertime, it was cold in there. They don’t want to give you extra blankets. Some of the dorms ain’t well heated. It was cold. I kept my coat on.

The showers are very nasty. I caught a fungus in there. There is no one to clean, and they won’t give us things to clean with. They treated me like I was unhuman, they really did. People need treatment. They just give you three meals and a cot up in there. Three meals and a cot. One time I had to act like I was pregnant so I could get enough to eat. I could push my stomach out good, so I get my little double meals.

The worst thing was my family coming to see me. My mother used to come see me with my daughter. The things they had my mother go through—the strip searching and stuff—was rough. I understand to a point, but sometimes they go to extreme. Rikers Island was real rough. It was the worst.

I fought a lot in there, and they will watch you as you fight. They won’t stop it. They need to have [corrections officers] up in there that know about people who are going through things. They need people who have a more therapeutic approach for addiction and mental illness.

Anytime I could get out of that cell—to go to Spanish church, to go to anything to get out of there—I would go. I didn’t care what it was. I just had to get out of the cell. I thought about my daughter a lot, and my mom. I did what I did, and I regret it. I had to pay the consequences behind my actions, but at the same time I was sick. My mother understood that and that gave me strength. My daughter definitely gave me strength. She would come see me, and she didn’t want to leave, and I didn’t want her to leave either. The visits are so short. It seems like it is so short. You go through all that, the searching and all that, to have that little visit. It is crazy. I had $58,000 bail. Whooo, if I had that money I probably wouldn’t have been in jail, you know what I am saying?

16 people died on Rikers Island in 2021.
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I am a VOCAL leader and a board member with the Civil Rights Union. I am trying to put the word out to the young people. I am trying to tell them: you don’t want to be there. That is why I don’t mind sharing my experience. But I also want to share my hopes. I eventually want to be a director and own my own company to go out there and get the message [out] to more young people. That is what I am looking forward to. But Rikers is a torture chamber. It is the worst place you want to be. I am not going to stop fighting to get it closed. I don’t want nobody to go through what I went through. I am not going to stop. I am not going to stop.

Listen to Jovada
More people died by suicide on Rikers Island in 2021 than in the past five years combined.