In response to the deepening crisis at Rikers Island, Governor Kathy Hochul on Friday signed a new law aimed at releasing nearly 200 detainees, many of whom are being held for nonviolent parole violations.
The law, dubbed the Less is More Act, is meant to curb the jailing of individuals who incur technical parole violations — according to the Associated Press, these offenses include missing curfew, being late to an appointment with a parole officer, or failing to pay fees or inform a parole officer of a change in employment.
The Governor’s decision came amid demands from lawmakers for further federal and state intervention at Rikers Island, which is purportedly rampant with brutality and egregious health conditions. Though Rikers Island has been historically known for chaos and a deep-seated culture of violence, the current crisis cropped up in conjunction with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Infection rates of staff members are increasingly high, leading to overwhelming staff shortages at the city-run jail. In addition, many corrections officers, who are typically granted an unlimited amount of sick leave, began to call out of work in droves — eventually, many of them have stopped showing up altogether.
For those incarcerated at Rikers, who are unable to afford the privilege of simply staying home, the situation is decidedly more grim. In a video captured earlier last week, Alice Fontier, managing director at the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, spoke about the deplorable conditions she witnessed on a tour of Rikers Island, calling it “the most horrific thing I have ever seen in my life.”
Fontier observed how individuals being held in intake were held in showers and forced to use plastic bags to relieve themselves, while others were crammed, unmasked, into single cells in large numbers where toilets overflowed. Many of these people have yet to be booked, and therefore are unable to see their lawyers.
City Council member Keith Powers had a similarly unnerving experience at the facility, which he described as “the most inhumane conditions imaginable” in a tweet posted on September 16. He called the situation a “humanitarian crisis” in which “Intake was abhorrent — 100s of inmates trapped for weeks. Denied water, food, a place to sleep. COVID rampant...” Additionally, Powers tweeted about the many staff members at Rikers who are “...just trying to triage a horrible crisis. [they] are depleted, clearly so mentally and physically exhausted.”
Perhaps most shocking is the number of casualties that have occurred at Rikers Island in recent months. Since December, ten detainees have died, several from suicide. Unsurprisingly, other deaths have come about as a result of a lack of medical attention.
On September 14, Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled the Emergency Rikers Relief Plan, a five-point plan meant to address the multifaceted issue. It includes:
● Adjusting staffing at courts
● Toughening accountability for AWOL staffers
● Expanding medical evaluation capacity for staff
● Engaging in emergency contracting
● Speeding intake to reduce crowing
Along with the plan, de Blasio urged several steps to be taken across the justice system, such as the enactment of the Less is More Act, and encouraging judges to use supervised release for non-violent offenders, as opposed to pretrial detention at Rikers.
While de Blasio’s push for more progressive initiatives regarding the Rikers crisis is ostensibly a move in the right direction, many were left unconvinced by his actions, condemning them as delayed and performative efforts. Darren Mack, Co-Director of the Urban Justice Center’s Freedom Agenda, released a statement shortly after de Blasio’s plan was announced. Mack, who is a survivor of Rikers and a vehement activist in attempting to have the facility shut down, called the mayor’s response an “unacceptable betrayal of his promise to close Rikers and to implement the Renewable Rikers vision,” referring to de Blasio’s “failed approaches” to solving the crisis by expanding use of the jail and the role of the NYPD.
Mack also called attention to the issue of judges and District Attorneys being allowed to “make a person’s freedom dependent on their wealth by setting bail amounts that function as ransom.” Alice Fontier and Keith Powers separately urged the mayor to take a trip to Rikers to see the deplorable conditions for himself. In one tweet, Fontier blasted Mayor de Blasio for attending the Met Gala, saying, “People are living in their own waste, incarcerated people are running Rikers Island, people are literally killing themselves to avoid staying there and @NYCMayor is at the Met Gala.”
Only days after Mayor de Blasio and Governor Hochul revealed reforms for Rikers, a detainee died in custody, marking yet another loss of life at the facility.
City Council member Keith Powers tweeted about the many staff members at Rikers who are “...just trying to triage a horrible crisis. [they] are depleted, clearly so mentally and physically exhausted.”