‘We demand action now!’ Recent Rikers Island deaths renew advocates’ call for major reforms

Those who have perished while imprisoned on Rikers Island were remembered Tuesday afternoon during an emotional rally.

The steps of City Hall were flooded on May 17 with demonstrators clinging to signs scrawled with the names of the dead. The vigil looked to recognize all those who have died while in custody since 2021. The grim death toll currently amounts to 20, with 25-year-old Dashawn Carter being the latest name added to that unfortunate list after he hanged himself on May 7.

Photo by Dean Moses
Photo by Dean Moses

Councilmember Carlina Rivera scolded the Department of Corrections for allowing such a heavy human toll to take place under their watch, believing they could and should have done better.

“Let me be clear, they have no one else to blame but themselves, the resources exist. This is a system and an institution that is beyond remediation.They have no plan for all the names that you are going to hear, for the 20 lives lost in just the last year and a half–we demand better,” Rivera said. “We demand action now.”

The vigil was held by a coalition of public defenders and activists including the likes of The Legal Aid Society, New York County Defender Services, Freedom Agenda, and more who say the courts have held the city in contempt for failing to ensure the health care of almost 2000 people on the penal island.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams has seen the state of the facility with his own eyes and says he believes no one is safe there.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. Photo by Dean Moses
Photo by Dean Moses

“When I go to Rikers Island and visit and I see no one is safe, the people who work there, the people who are incarcerated, no one’s safe,” Williams said. “Most of them are waiting for their trial because they weren’t found guilty or sentenced for a very light sentence. But it turns out they were sentenced to death. That is not something that anybody can accept in any society.”

Ten of the 20 names were read aloud before the group marched out of the grounds of City Hall and to St. Andrew’s Plaza where ten more names were acknowledged. For those in attendance, the crisis at Rikers Island has become a humanitarian concern and while the vigil was intended to honor the dead, the groups a call on elected leaders to make a change at the island before things grow even more dire.

In response to the claims made at the vigil, a City Hall spokesperson provided amNewYork Metro with the following statement.     

“Since taking office, this administration has been doing the hard work that past administrations were not willing to do. While we have had early success increasing staffing and stemming violence in our jails, we know we must go much further to address the multiple crises plaguing Rikers. A receivership is not a magic bullet; it is not a guaranteed fix– it will only delay reforms that are needed now; reforms that we are ready, willing, and able to make immediately. Our focus is not on the handful of people who had the opportunity to fix Rikers or install a receiver when they were in charge– our focus has been, and will remain, working with the monitor to deliver safer and more humane jails for all.”

Photo by Dean Moses
Photo by Dean Moses