Take Action: Abuses on Rikers Island Must End!

Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Oct 14, 2022

Fresh images of horror at Rikers Island were made public in September, offering yet more reasons to free people from this hellish jail complex.

The pictures show people caged in tiny showers and sleeping on excrement-smeared floors. They show incarcerated people attempting chest compressions on the seriously ill, because no medical care was available. They show people without access to functional toilets being left to suffer in their own feces for hours on end. They show people being treated as though they are not human beings.

Learn how to reach out directly to your city council member and NYC Mayor Eric Adams and share your thoughts.

Take Action: Abuses on Rikers Island must end! - Vera Institute of Justice

Political leaders and society must not look away from these pictures, which were included in a “State of New York City Jails” presentation for New York City prosecutors that was obtained by Gothamist. It was prepared so that prosecutors could better understand the conditions where people are being sent to wait for trial.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to be treated as innocent until proven guilty, a speedy trial, and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. As of October 7, 5,031 people were waiting for their day in court in the dehumanizing conditions of New York City jails. Of them, 1,053 people had been imprisoned and waiting for trial for more than one year.

Bilal Malik, whose family member was once imprisoned on Rikers Island, says that society should not tolerate the conditions of these jails. “[My family member] 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,” Malik said. “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.”

A federal monitor has described a “pervasive level of disorder and chaos” at Rikers Island. News reports have consistently revealed “hellish” conditions, in which people are commonly forced to sleep in shower cells among sewage and fecal matter and denied medical care.

Eileen Maher, who spent 420 days on Rikers Island while awaiting trial, calls the jail complex a torture chamber, where everything is designed to dehumanize and degrade the people imprisoned there.

“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,” she said. “It is just one continuous loop of torture.”

In 2021, 16 people died in New York City jails. This year, 16 people have already died.

New York City needs to deliver on its commitment to close Rikers Island and end the persistent human rights abuses of its horrific jails. It also needs to invest in public safety solutions that don’t rely on incarceration—like affordable housing, education, and mental and physical health care—that heal the communities most harmed by mass incarceration. The city should:

  • Focus on decarceration. Mayor Adams and his administration should work with district attorneys, public defenders, judges, and other criminal legal system stakeholders to help keep people from being detained on Rikers Island, instead diverting them to programs and services that address their underlying needs. These leaders should also gather relevant decision makers to expedite case review and resolution, helping to ensure that people who remain on Rikers aren’t detained there any longer.
  • Expand alternatives to incarceration. Increase funding for evidence-based case management, treatment, rehabilitation, and other support services for people awaiting trial. These programs address root causes, often stemming from mental health or substance use issues, and ensure people show up to court without resorting to jail.
  • Invest in supportive housing. Increase funding for supportive housing that provides stability and helps maintain community safety.
  • Invest in communities. Invest in employment initiatives and other community-based services that connect New Yorkers with educational and economic opportunities.

These latest images from Rikers Island demand immediate action. New York City must end the suffering and death in its jails.