‘Torture island’: Calls grow louder for mayor to shutter Rikers, address inhumane conditions

The fight to close and decarcerate Rikers Island continued on Sept. 22 with the latest rally outside City Hall, as activists and elected officials continue to fume over inhumane conditions in the jail facility.

Public anger has grown in recent days after the Sept. 19 death of Isaabdul Karim, the 11th Rikers Island inmate to die there this year. Then on Tuesday, state Attorney General Letitia James and a contingent of lawmakers and elected officials toured the facility, with James saying afterward she was abhorred by the conditions and would consider taking action.

During Wednesday morning’s protest at City Hall, participants were further spurred in their calls to close Rikers and release its remaining prisoners following a letter sent by Congress Members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jerrold Nadler and Jamaal Bowman. That idea, Mayor Bill de Blasio said later on Wednesday, was a non-starter.

Activists have been adding names of all of those who perished on Rikers Island onto a blanket. Photo by Dean Moses

However, the coalition of activists, including #HALTSolitary and Katal Center for Equity, Health and Justice, rallied outside of City Hall, believe enough is enough.

Throwing cardboard scissors in the air to symbolize their call to cut off the human flow to the embattled jail, they also called for prisons to be shut down, and to invest in communities through mental illness programs, housing initiatives, education and more. 

Additionally, they commended Governor Kathy Hochul for signing the Less is More Parole Reform Act—which has become a catalyst for the release of 191 individuals from Rikers Island for technical parole violations.

They want de Blasio to take the next step forward.

Chants rang out, “Cut, shut, and invest.” Photo by Dean Moses
Members of Vocal NY are calling for NYPD to be defunded. Photo by Dean Moses

“Last week, legislatures toured the island and found people standing in feces. Incarcerated people piled on top of each other like animals—worse than animals. A man attempted to die by suicide in front of them. Mayor de Blasio has done nothing to address the crisis on hand. Mayor de Blasio needs to decarcerate Rikers right now,” said Jasmin, a member of the Katal Center for Equity, Health and Justice.

Assembly Member Harvey Epstein concurred with these arguments, adding that he too has visited Rikers Island and observed the inhumane living conditions incarcerated individuals face. While elected officials have begun to tour and investigate the deplorable sites found on Rikers, Epstein shamed the mayor for not visiting the jail himself. (The mayor, who hasn’t visited Rikers since 2016, had vowed to visit the facility before his term expires this December.) 

Assembly member Harvey Epstein. Photo by Dean Moses

“Today, we know that the mayor of the City of New York refuses to go to Rikers to see the horrible conditions that people are living in. As an elected official representing the East Side of Manhattan, I know the crisis we have in our prison system,” Epstein said. “I’ve been to Rikers. I’ve seen the disgusting way that we as a government require people to live. The mayor has no excuse but to send people home to protect their lives, their health and their security.”

According to activists, nearly 90% of those being held on Rikers Island are Black or Latinx individuals awaiting pre-trial since many of them could not afford bail — a disparity that has been under scrutiny for many years, protesters argue, but still has not changed.

Twenty-three years ago, AJ served time on Rikers Island and shared that the same deplorable conditions that are being publicized now existed then. 

Activists cried out for a change on Rikers Island. Photo by Dean Moses
AJ knows what it is like to serve time in Rikers Island. Photo by Dean Moses

“The same thing that’s happening today was happened then,” AJ said. “It’s been decades going on. I want to commend my fellow incarcerated people in there today for taking a stand and contacting their family members to inform us what was going on. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t know how to fight.”

AJ said the resources used to operate Rikers should instead be spent on services for people in need, from homes for the homeless to expanded mental health care.

“I’m talking about mental health. A lot of people there are homeless off the street and all you can do is find a jail cell for them. Let’s find a home for them in all these buildings going up here. They shouldn’t have to be homeless,” AJ said, adding, “De Blasio, you need to contact the governor and work with her because she is working with us!”

With chants calling for Rikers to be shut down immediately and “No justice, no peace” community members, legislative officials, and others demand the mayor to take action and decarcerate the facility.

“The mayor needs to do something about this crisis, and he isn’t the only one to blame. The DAs and the courts must stop sending people to Rikers. It is a torture island,” said Kenyatta Muzzanni, the director of organizing at the Katal Center for Equity, Health and Justice.

Signs read: “Cut, shut, and invest.” Photo by Dean Moses
Holding up cardboard scissors, those at the rally demand that the prison population be cut down. Photo by Dean Moses
The rally at City Hall called upon the mayor to take immediate action in decarcerating Rikers Island. Photo by Dean Moses