18 hours of action: Rikers Island closure demands repeated at Lower Manhattan protest

Human rights advocates took part in an 18-hour day of action Thursday as they seek the closure of Rikers Island.

The length of the demonstration posed significance for the organizers, as they held one hour of action for every lost life inside a city jail this year.

The large crowd assembled on the Broadway side of City Hall at 6 a.m. on Nov. 3 and was expected to remain in the area until 11:30 p.m. that evening, as elected officials, activists, family members, and the formally incarcerated themselves stood against what many have called a “hellhole.” 

Members of the Jails Action Coalition, #HALTsolitary Campaign, Freedom Agenda, VOCAL-NY, and more set out faux body bags along with the names of those who have perished while imprisoned. Organizers claimed that about 1,000 inmates on the penal island suffer from mental illness, making the DOC facility a caretaker for mental health.

Faux body bags were used to symbolize the number of individuals who’ve perished in city jails. Photo by Dean Moses
The names of those who died on Rikers Island were displayed. Photo by Dean Moses

“We know that about 20% of people who are there over a thousand people who are there right now are suffering from severe mental illness. We have let Rikers become our largest de facto mental health facility in New York City. And we know nobody’s gonna get better there. We know people are just gonna get worse unless we make change,” New York City Comptroller Brad Lander said. 

The toll Rikers has taken became apparent over the course of the rally, not only on those who are and have been detained there, but also on the family members who have outlived their children.

Tamara Carter recounted what she understands happened when her son, Brandon Rodriguez, hanged himself inside his cell in August 2021. The still devastated mother poured her heart out over the tragic death.

Protesters demanded that Rikers Island be closed. Photo by Dean Moses
Protesters demanded that Rikers Island be closed. Photo by Dean Moses

“He was on Rikers for six days and now he’s gone forever. Thirty-four moms are now in the same amount of pain that I am in. I am only in my 15th month of supposedly healing. I don’t know what that is because it hasn’t started,” Carter sobbed. “I’m embarrassed at this point to be a frickin New Yorker. How can this be done every day?”

Carter was joined in her sorrow by grandmother Madeline Feliciano. Her grandson, Nicholas Feliciano, also attempted to hang himself in 2019 while correction officers allegedly did nothing.

While Nicholas survived, he suffered permanent brain damage and now lives in a hospital.

Families showcased pictures of their loved ones. Photo by Dean Moses
On Nov. 2 advocates gather for an 18-hour protest outside of City Hall to signify the number of individuals who perished in city jails. Photo by Dean Moses

“There’s something wrong, it’s been happening for decades, and they keep promising changes and implementing decisions that things are gonna change, but no people are dying. So, obviously something needs to be fixed,” Feliciano said, displaying a photo of her grandson in the hospital. “It’s going to be three years this month that my grandson is still suffering from anoxic brain damage due to the lack of oxygen that he didn’t get for those seven minutes and 51 seconds. Nicholas will never be the same.”

Statistically, 2022 is set to be the deadliest year on record in terms of jail deaths. It is with this in mind speakers called on Rikers Island to be shuttered and decarcerate.

In response to a request for comment about the protest, the Corrections Department offered the following statement through a spokesperson: “We extend our deepest condolences to the families who have lost a loved one. We fully agree with advocates’ commitment to improving conditions and we’re working around the clock to fix the rippling effect of years of mismanagement and neglect within our jails. While we are proud of progress made, it takes time to see results and turning our jails around requires a collaborative effort, transparency, and hard work. We will continue to utilize all of the tools at our disposal to improve conditions for everyone who lives and works in our facilities.”