‘Rikers equals death’: Street demonstration symbolic of growing public pressure on city to close jail for good

“Rikers equals death,” and the only solution to save those housed at the facility is to close the jail and send the inmates elsewhere, criminal justice activists said.

The latest effort to bring public attention to the humanitarian crisis on Rikers Isand occurred on Oct. 1, when prior to a state Assembly hearing, protesters demanded action during rally at City Hall Park in Lower Manhattan.

“Let our people go,” protesters chanted as they held signs demanding those imprisoned be freed, before listing the names of those who’ve perished on Rikers Island.

“I am here to let the elected officials know that our loved ones are on Rikers Island, and they do not deserve to feel as though they are cast away and out of sight and mind. They are being pushed to their limits mentally and physically every day. If our mayor, governor, judges, and DAs do not decarcerate they will contribute to the demise of hundreds of people,” said Crystal Clarke, member of Freedom Agenda and a partner of a person incarcerated on Rikers Island.

Protesters block Broadway just outside of City Hall Park prior to the State Assembly Hearing on Friday, Oct. 1. Photo by Erica Vladmier

Enraged by the de Blasio administration, the District Attorney Offices, and the court system as a whole, activists poured onto the streets blocking traffic along Broadway demanding the immediate release of those incarcerated. Although this act of civil disobedience last almost an hour, no arrests were made.  

The rage and anger over the conditions at Rikers has only grown since the mayor visited the island last week, when he seemingly passed the buck of blame — declaring that progress has been made, albeit slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, while also touting his plan to close it in 2026.

Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas proudly clung to a banner reading, “Free our People Now.” Photo by Erica Vladmier.   

However, many including fellow elected officials assert that the sad state of the prison cannot wait another five years.

Queens Assembly Member Jessica González-Rojas proudly clung to a banner reading, “Free our people now” as she addressed the crowd regarding the horrors she witnessed in September. She described watching a man attempt suicide and the countless incarcerated individuals treated inhumanly.

“We’ve lost twelve people on Rikers Island this year and all of them were avoidable. The crisis on Rikers Island is a crisis of inhumanity and despite knowing the solutions, the mayor, judges, and District Attorneys are choosing not to act. There is nothing just about that. We must decarcerate Rikers,” said González-Rojas.

Assemblymember Jessica Gonzalez Rojas copy. Photo by Eric Hirschfeld

Melania Brown has been at the forefront of advocating for incarcerated individuals’ rights since her sister, Layleen Polanco died on Rikers Island in 2019.

 “New York City didn’t fail us, our elected leaders did. What’s going on at Rikers Island is inhumane and horrific and those in power that can do something about it choose to turn their backs rather than to save a human’s life. If it was one of their loved ones they would’ve shut Rikers Island down already,” Brown said.