deteriorating conditions: how Rikers reached this point

First-hand accounts of life inside Rikers have been largely overlooked. Hear from individuals at the forefront of the crisis in Rikers Island, your long read from The Indypendent

We go to The Indypendent for this week's long read by Amba Guerguerian. Read the whole story, “Why Rikers Has Unraveled.” We include key excerpts below to convince you it’s worth your time!

Worsening conditions for all involved parties

When they need to be transferred to me for whatever reason, the ear is ripped off, the nose is ripped open, the eye is cut, the broken bones, if we can splint them, we do; cast them, we do,” says Nadyne

Pressley, a nursing supervisor who has worked on Rikers Island since 2008. Pressley is currently working at the urgent care unit in the West Facility, one of the 10 jails on the island.

The three unions that represent the healthcare workers on the island — 1199SEIU, SEIU Doctors Council and New York State Nurses Association — began pushing for safety fixes in 2019, but “in the last year it got more serious,” says Pressley, vice president of the nurses union’s corrections branch. “We need to know that we’re going to be able to go to work and return from work safely.”

That is not currently the case. Since August, the Rikers Island jail complex has been in the headlines for violence, egregiously bad living conditions for inmates, and lack of services. Mainstream media and politicians have framed the problems as the result of a shortage of correction officers (COs) over the past five months. While the lack of officers has certainly exacerbated worsening conditions, jail staff was calling for reform a year before the shortage began.


When the COVID-19 virus hit Rikers, the city Department of Correction (DOC) didn’t keep the spread to a minimum. Incarcerated people told me that guards often went maskless, cleaning supplies were hard to come by, aging buildings were reopened for use as inadequately administered quarantines, programming and services were cancelled, and healthcare was difficult to access.

“I got COVID real bad. Most of the room was very sick. People caught COVID, they took them out but put them right back in our unit within four, five days and it spread like wildfire,” says Cleveland Broadnax, who has been incarcerated for 28 months awaiting trial. He spent his first year on Rikers and then was moved to the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center, commonly known as “The Boat,” a five-story jail barge anchored off the Bronx, across the East River from Rikers. It has similar problems. “We have black maggots coming out of the drains,” Broadnax says.

When COs started being absent in droves in April — around 1,000 quit (some joining the police) and an average of 1,000 more calling out sick every day — the situation became dire. Every activity in jail, whether it be getting the mail, going to the clinic, getting food, being moved out of intake or using the law library, is attended by a guard. With the number of COs on duty reduced by as much as one-third, there’s been a decline in not only safety measures, but in services. When there’s a decline in services, inmates become aggravated and more likely to act violently.

Medical staff, often confronted with an incarcerated person at their wits’ end, are being assaulted. Female corrections officers — who make up 60% of all guards — are regularly reporting sexual harassment from those incarcerated. Assaults on other inmates are at a high, with COs often taking little to no action to stop the assailants.

Bottom line

“When the mayor came down, he had a whole crew of security. He had a separate DOC entourage! I don’t even know where he found them with the shortage,” said a jail staffer who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. “The rumors are that when he called for his officers, he made sure everything looked clean. The mayor came; they moved everything.”

According to this staffer, DOC moved inmates from intake to the gym so the mayor wouldn’t see the pileup in the intake building. “Where did they all go? You think we’re putting in fraudulent claims? You didn’t even ask them, ‘Where are the admissions?’” As the mayor walked through the near-empty building, the remaining prisoners were yelling at him to go to the gym where he would find their cellmates.

Having hundreds of inmates crowded in the gym seems to have caused COVID to spread on Rikers, as every jail on the island has an outbreak. On October 13, 15 days after the mayor’s visit, an inmate died of the virus.

“No other system would be allowed to operate in this manner. Only carceral systems are allowed to operate in this manner,” says Darren Mack, co-director of Freedom Agenda, a decarceral organization. “L.A. has almost three times as many people in jail, but their budget is almost half the size of New York’s.” The correction budget for New York City is $2.6 billion.

“They need to rein in and reallocate the DOC budget. They need to right-size and transition jail staff into non-carceral city jobs. They say the city budget is a reflection of what the city values,” says Mack. “And people that are actually doing really effective work, like social workers, they don’t get paid well by the city and they’re the first ones on the chopping block when there’s a deficit. When it comes to carceral systems — D.A.’s offices, NYPD, the citywide jail system, DOC — they don’t even consider reducing those budgets.”

Read the whole article here.

Resources: State policy changesNewsBureau of Prisons updatesState court changesPrison holistic self care and protection. Jailhouse Lawyers Handbook.

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