NEW YORK – Four members of Congress from New York demanded the release of inmates and closure of New York City's troubled Rikers Island jail complex after another inmate was reported dead at the facility.
Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jerry Nadler, Jamaal Bowman and Nydia Velázquez called conditions at the jail “deplorable and nothing short of a humanitarian crisis," in a letter Tuesday to New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The demand followed the 11th death reported at Rikers Island this year. The city's Department of Correction said an inmate died Sunday at the jail after reporting he did not feel well and was taken to the infirmary.
His death came on the heels of both Hochul and de Blasio announcing plans to try to improve conditions at Rikers Island, where longstanding troubles were exacerbated amid the pandemic.
Hochul's press secretary, Hazel Crampton-Hays, said the governor “took swift action to release hundreds of people incarcerated in Rikers and improve justice and safety,” and promised further steps.
A message seeking comment was also left with the mayor's office.
In their letter, the House members said the jail has failed to provide inmates with basic services and protection against the spread of COVID-19, and lawmakers on a recent visit to the facility found conditions that were “life-threatening and horrific.”
They reported overflowing toilets and floors covered in dead cockroaches, feces and rotting food. State Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas said inmates told her they felt like they were being treated like slaves and animals.
It was not immediately clear from the letter whether the four House members were calling for all inmates, including those being held for violent crimes, to be immediately released or for some to be transferred to other facilities.
Ocasio-Cortez's office said the congresswoman believed that inmates should be released. Messages seeking additional information from the offices of the other House members were not immediately returned.
Of the 11 inmates who have died at Rikers Island this year, at least five died in suspected suicides. Officials have said deteriorating conditions at the jail came amid a slowdown in court proceedings, leaving more inmates incarcerated while awaiting trial, and chronic staff shortages.
At one point this summer, more than one-third of the city’s jail guards were on sick leave or medically unfit to work with inmates. Some guards missed shifts without any explanation.
De Blasio announced measures last week that included requiring jail guards to get a doctor's note if they miss work for more than one day or face suspension without pay. Hochul on Friday signed legislation that largely eliminated the practice of incarcerating people for technical parole violations. The Democratic governor also said she was asking the state parole board to immediately release 191 people and move 200 sentenced inmates to state facilities.
The Department of Correction said it “is tirelessly working to continue improving conditions on Rikers, including releasing eligible people under the Less is More Act, increasing accountability for absent staffers, expediting intake to create more space, and using emergency contracting to secure quick repairs and deep cleaning.”
Michael Skelly, a spokesperson for the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, representing the jail guards, dismissed the letter.
“Closing Rikers is a talking point and not a reality right now. We have 6,000 inmates. There are no new jails built yet," he said. "Where are they going to go?”
He encouraged members of Congress concerned about Rikers to use their power to expedite building new jails, plans for which have been met with community opposition.
Skelly said those jails won’t open until 2027 at the earliest and combined they’d have a maximum capacity of 3,300 inmates.
De Blasio’s annual accounting of city agencies released late last week showed sharply higher rates of violence and increased mental health concerns among inmates in the city’s jails compared with previous years. Serious injuries to inmates and assaults on staff also jumped.
According to the report, more than half of inmates across the city's jails had a mental health diagnosis and 16.5% of inmates had a serious mental health diagnosis.
Meanwhile, uniformed personnel at the jails has plummeted, from a staff of 10,862 in the 2017 fiscal year to 8,388 in 2021. The guard’s union says 7,600 of staff are correctional officers and the rest are in supervisory roles. About 1,200 officers have resigned since January 2019, the union said.
Associated Press writer Michael Sisak contributed to this report.