Decarceration advocates furious over third Rikers Island death, call out Governor for ‘mass incarceration’ agenda

Formerly incarcerated individuals rallied outside Governor Kathy Hochul’s Midtown office Monday morning after two more men perished in New York City’s jail system last week.

Hosted by a coalition of advocacy groups including #HALTsolitary Campaign, New York City Jails Action Coalition, and Freedom Agenda, attendees looked to both remember the lives lost and take the Governor to task for allowing Rikers Island to continue under previously-reported deterioration. 

Herman Diaz, 52, and George Pagan, 49, both died while in custody on Rikers Island last week, bringing the total number of deaths this year to three, which has sent advocates championing the rights of those behind bars into a rage. The apparent abominable conditions on the inside of Rikers Island have long been decried by those serving time, staff members, and elected officials, and were predicted to lead to more deaths unless significant changes were made.

“It’s a shame that we have to be here once again to raise awareness of the deplorable conditions at Rikers. We are here to say to Governor Hochul and our legislators that you need to release our people. Three deaths on Rikers in 2022 and that’s three deaths too many,” Victor Pate of #HALTsolitary said.

Pate knows the horrors of the infamous island all too well having been incarcerated at Rikers in the 1970s, yet he believes the facility is even worse in 2022 than it was when he served time decades ago.

Victor Pate of #HALT solitary. Photo by Adrian Childress

“There is a humanitarian crisis going on right now on Rikers Island,” Pate said, adding that the Federal Monitor has continued to underscore the unsafe living conditions, yet nothing has been done to resolve these issues. “We need you to fix this now. We don’t need you to try and change bail reform, we do not need you to change discovery, we do not need you to raise the age, what we need you to do is release people.” 

Critics lambasted the governor for a plan they believe will vastly increase the number of individuals behind bars by rolling back bail reform and other changes to halt repeat offenders, such as allowing judges to set bail for violent crimes.

Many of these ideas were also put forth recently in Mayor Eric Adams’ controversial Blueprint to End Gun violence, which calls for targeted reforms on pretrial detention, raise the penalty for gun trafficking, allow judges to take dangerousness into account, raise the age for gun charges, and alter discovery procedures (allowing district attorneys to proceed with gun charges before having sufficient evidence), and removing disclosure requirements.

An advocate for decarceration held up a photo of Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman who perished in Rikers Island custody in 2019. Photo by Adrian Childress

Hochul’s proposals are in line with Adams’ blueprint, and she is reportedly making it permissible for officers to arrest individuals instead of dispensing a summons or ticket for crimes committed in public transportation, and underage individuals caught with a gun would be tried in criminal court–-these charges were often heard in family court.

In response to these verbal jabs, the governor’s office says that Hochul does not hold debate such issues in public forums.

“As the Governor has said consistently since becoming Governor, she does not negotiate in public. We look forward to continuing to work with the legislature to deliver a budget that serves New Yorkers,” Press Secretary Hazel Crampton-Hays told amNewYork Metro. 

With gun crime continuing to surge, Hochul has spent the last several months focusing on the whirlwind of bullets, including that of ghost guns. On Oct. 28, 2021, the Governor signed legislation banning ghost guns, and on Nov. 10 she stated that she was open to having conversations on bail reform with legislative leaders but will not negotiate in public. This was followed by her public safety agenda, unveiled on Jan. 5. 

Protesters gathered outside of Governor Kathy Hochul Midtown office. Photo by Adrian Childress