Rikers Island crisis comes to UN, as protesters voice their concerns while Mayor Adams addressed assembly

Activists staged a silent protest outside of the United Nations Monday in hopes of eliciting a response from the mayor regarding the rising death toll in New York City Jails.

Mayor Eric Adams visited the United Nations on July 18 to make a speech as part of the commemoration of Nelson Mandela International Day. However, while the city’s top elected official spoke inside, protesters from the Jails Action Coalition gathered outside on 43rd Street and First Avenue.

Holding black cloths inscribed with the names of those who have died inside Rikers Island, the demonstrators stood silently with the United Nations serving as a backdrop. A banner reading “There is nothing natural about dying in jail” served as the centerpiece of what the group clearly wants to generate as a shadow looming over the mayor the same way the deaths on Rikers Island loom over their families.

“Today we are out here sending a message to the mayor about the lives that we are losing in increasing numbers since last year and by the rate we are going this year we are going to far exceed that. What point is he [the mayor] going to release a statement, say anything other than an empty apology?” a member of the Jails Action Coalition who wished to not be named told amNewYork Metro outside the UN.

This comes after two incarcerated individuals perished inside of Rikers Island in the span of two weeks. Elijah Muhammed, 31, was found dead inside the George R. Vierno Center on July 11 while Michael Lopez, 34, lost his life on July 15, bringing the death toll to 11 people inside DOC custody. Advocates are calling the issue a human rights crisis and are demanding the mayor take action, and until he does the Jails Action Coalition alludes that they will continue trailing him like a dark shroud.

“If we happen to bump into him somewhere we are definitely going to try and send a message to him,” the Jails Action Coalition member said.

Additionally, the coalition is asking the mayor to end solitary confinement, work with the government to release individuals from city jails, and ensure all incarcerated individuals have access to medical care, programs, recreation, and other services. 

Mayor Eric Adams delivers remarks at the United Nations (UN) to mark Nelson Mandela International Day. Monday, July 18, 2022. Credit: Benny Polatseck/Mayoral Photography Office.

Inside the UN, Adams recalled visiting Robben Island, the South African penitentiary facility where Mandela was held for 27 years prior to his 1990 release, and remarked that “the ongoing crises of COVID, war and crime have imprisoned us in our own Robben Island prisons.” Yet the mayor offered hope through his own personal story of overcoming dyslexia and disadvantages as a child.

“These are temporary conditions, they’re not life sentences. My own personal story is a reflection of that,” Adams told the assembly. “Each of us must challenge the humanistic spirit of fortitude and forgiveness as we rise to the challenges of our time. That Mandela-like energy will allow us to turn our pain into purpose. It will allow us to turn those dark places into the plantings we need to assure a harvest of hope, equity, and peace.”

Mayor Adams responded in a statement to amNewYork Metro by assuring that his office looks into each and every death while taking steps to also make reforms.  

“Every death in custody is a tragedy and my thoughts are with the friends and families who have lost loved ones. In addition to the Attorney General, we investigate every death in custody aggressively and implement necessary reforms. While we have seen staffing improvements and a decrease in violence, much work remains. Commissioner Molina and I are committed to tackling the challenges facing us and implementing the reforms needed to build safer and more humane jails for those who live and work on Rikers,” Mayor Adams said.