New Yorkers Can’t Afford Another Year of Death in Our Jails

Jullian Harris-Calvin Director, Greater Justice New York // Sam McCann Senior Writer
Jan 10, 2023

In 2021, Rikers Island was in readily apparent crisis. Jail staff stopped showing up to work en masse. The Department of Correction (DOC) was caught locking people in shower stalls surrounded by feces and urine. Hundreds of people were held in intake for days or weeks before being assigned to a bed. In December 2021, the federal monitor overseeing DOC called it “the most dangerous year” since they took on the role in 2015. By the end of the year, 15 people had died in DOC custody or immediately after their release.

In 2022, NYC’s annual jail death toll climbed to 19.

But while the jails grew more deadly last year, the outrage around the conditions causing those deaths plateaued. People continued to die, jail staff continued to abandon their posts, and New Yorkers continued to be left in locked shower stalls for days on end. But the urgency to address the crisis using the most effective tools possible—reducing the jail population and investing in community-based services like supportive housing—flattened. The crisis was normalized, and urgency was replaced by unfounded scare tactics that called for more incarceration amid an ongoing jail crisis.

That fearmongering manifested in political stagnation. As Mayor Eric Adams took office last January, legislators, community leaders, and media insisted on the urgent need to reduce the jail population and hold correctional leaders accountable. Instead, the new mayor immediately reversed the ban on solitary confinement, installed a new DOC commissioner who eliminated key checks on correctional officer misconduct, and spent his first year in office pressuring the legislature to roll back basic criminal justice reforms that have reduced the number of people detained in “hellish” conditions before their day in court. The new DOC commissioner also repeatedly skipped oversight hearings with the Board of Corrections and fought to retain control of Rikers from a federal monitor that had grown increasingly uncertain of the city’s ability to run a jail complex without letting dozens of people die. The year ended with more deaths in DOC custody than any year since 2013 (when roughly twice as many people were incarcerated), and the DOC commissioner predicting that New York City would not reduce the jail population enough to meet the target set as part of its commitment to close Rikers by 2027.

As we enter 2023, the conditions on Rikers have not fundamentally improved since the deadly crisis reached its height. Intake remains a disaster, with people held in cramped quarters—with no beds, showers, or access to adequate food or medicine—for longer than the court-ordered 24 hour limit. (It was even revealed this past fall that DOC staff had altered data in its tracking system to hide violations of this rule.) And while the absenteeism among DOC staff has declined from the absurdly high levels of 2021, it remains about twice as high as it was in 2019.

For those who get past intake, medical attention from DOC remains scant. Edgardo Mejias—who died on Rikers last month in a suspected overdose—had previously made repeated complaints to his attorney that he was not receiving medical treatment. Those complaints echo Herminio Villanueva’s, who died in 2020 after DOC staff failed to respond to his asthma attack, and that of Herman Diaz, who choked to death on an orange while correction officers were nowhere to be found. Medical neglect runs rampant on Rikers, with thousands of missed appointments every month.

Mental health and other services are also flatly inadequate, despite the fact that more than half of the people held on Rikers have mental health needs. When elected officials visited Rikers in 2021, they witnessed a suicide attempt, an all-too-common occurrence in a facility ill-equipped to meet people’s mental health needs. Seven people in New York City jails died by suicide or suspected suicide in 2022.

The path forward in 2023 is abundantly clear: Rikers needs to be taken over by a court-appointed expert, also known as a federal receiver, in order to address unrestrained absenteeism, bring community-based organizations in to provide services, fix unsafe infrastructure, and facilitate the closure of Rikers before 2027.

However, receivership is not a magic bullet. While federal management of the facility would aim to reduce the suffering on Rikers over time, the best solution to prevent another death both on Rikers and in jails citywide—this week, this month, and this year—remains decarceration. Just as advocates said in 2021, the deadly conditions on Rikers are fundamentally driven by the city’s swollen pretrial detention population. The city and state can reduce those numbers safely by prioritizing community-based programs that effectively address underlying conditions, like homelessness and mental health needs. Supportive housing programs are proven to reduce incarceration rates while also being wildly popular among city residents. Mental health services and substance use treatment can also both help decrease crime rates. And at the state level, legislators should pass the Treatment Not Jails Act, which would expand eligibility for mental health treatment, diverting more people from jail and into community support.

These kinds of services also save money: DOC spends more than $550,000 annually to keep someone behind bars when supportive housing, for example, costs only $42,000 and can help break the cycle that often leads to reincarceration after release.

From a fiscal and moral perspective, New York cannot afford to commit to another year of status quo in its jails. We have the tools to end the deaths and build safe communities—we just need our leaders to use them.