After Tour Of NY’s Rikers Island Prison Complex, US Representatives Maloney, Ocasio-Cortez, Torres Call On City To Address Inhumane Conditions, Release Low-Level Offenders

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Carolyn Maloney, and Ritchie Torres took a tour of the Rikers Island facility, New York City’s main jail complex, located in the East River between the Bronx and Queens. For perspective, many of the inmates at Rikers are awaiting trial, and have not been convicted of a crime as of yet. Some have waited years, participating in prison labor in the meantime, often for much less than minimum wage. According to the New York City Guide, featuring Rikers Island, released in March of 2020 by Fordham University:

“The United States has an extensive prison system, with a focus on incarceration and prison labor as opposed to inmate reformation. Formally incarcerated individuals are placed at a disadvantage once they are released due to the lack of educational and vocational opportunities available and utilized while incarcerated, these inmates may also face voting, housing and employment discrimination once released. These factors create a large population of disadvantaged citizens that can negatively affect the socio-economic and physical environments of the civilian communities in which they reside.”

Keeping in mind that most of the imprisoned residents of Rikers Island are not yet convicted, the inhumane conditions described by the Congresspeople are particularly concerning. Some of the inmates there may never be convicted, and will have been subjected to poor treatment, lack of medical care, and in some cases death, all for no reason whatsoever.

Rikers Island Aerial View. Image Credit -US Geological Survey

Rikers Island Aerial View. Image Credit -US Geological Survey

One of the more famous examples of a prisoner being incarcerated who did not commit any crime is the case of Kaleif Browder. According to Wikipedia: “Kalief Browder was accused of robbing a back pack at the age of 16. His family was unable to make his $3,000 bail, later being unable to post bail due to a probation violation. He was imprisoned without trial or conviction for three years. His trial was postponed on numerous occasions. The case was eventually dismissed and Browder was released in June 2013 by Judge Patricia DiMango after numerous postponements of his case and 31 hearings in front of judges. For two of those years, Browder was held in solitary confinement or punitive segregation. Browder was profiled in The New Yorker in October 2014 for being held for three years on Rikers Island without a trial.”

Unfortunately, Mr Browder took his own life two years after being released, with the harsh conditions and solitary confinement being widely blamed for his death. Considering the Fordham quote above, describing the reality for those who have left the penal system, it can be difficult or almost impossible to return to a normal life after imprisonment.

While the majority of those awaiting trial at Rikers will eventually be convicted, that does not excuse the conditions at the jail. Some have pointed out that animals (such as dogs, cats, and other non-laboratory animals) live in better conditions and have more rights than prisoners do at this New York City jail (and other jails in the United States – Rikers is not actually an exception but more the norm). In practice, many prisoners are not only denied their basic rights, but also denied the ability to fight for their legal rights. When they stand up, they are often silenced by being placed into solitary confinement or are subjected to other harsh punitive measures.

San Francisco Jail. Image Credit - Carles Rabada

San Francisco Jail. Image Credit – Carles Rabada

A prisoner in Virginia has made claims against the prison system he was housed in, “pointing out that inmates make less than a dollar an hour to manufacture license plates, furniture and clothing for a state-run corporation…They’re able to exploit our labor, because we’re not protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act, and we’re not protected by Virginia’s minimum wage act, and we’re talking about an agency that makes nearly $100 million a year from prison labor.”

Some are not familiar with the difference between a prison and a jail. Once convicted, inmates would likely be moved to another facility, located elsewhere, to serve the duration of their sentence. Rikers Island is supposed to be a temporary holding area, with conditions to match this definition.

Wikipedia states the difference between Rikers as a jail and prison as follows: “The Rikers Island complex, which consists of ten jails, holds local offenders who are awaiting trial, serving sentences of one year or less, or are temporarily placed there pending transfer to another facility. Rikers Island is therefore not a prison by US terminology, which typically holds offenders serving longer-term sentences. It is home to ten of the New York City Department of Correction’s fifteen facilities and can accommodate up to 15,000 detainees.”

Person Holding on Gray Metal Bar. Image Credit - RODNAE Production

Person Holding on Gray Metal Bar. Image Credit – RODNAE Production

AOC, Maloney, and Torres stated, after their tour: “Today, we saw first-hand the horrific conditions that individuals incarcerated on Rikers Island are living under and the support staff and corrections officers are working under. It is inexcusable that the number of in-custody deaths on Rikers Island has more than quadrupled over the past two years, including five individuals who have died of suspected suicides this year alone. While we welcome the signing of the Less is More Act, we must take action to improve conditions at the facility for incarcerated people, support staff, and corrections officers. To address overcrowding, we can act today by beginning the decarceration process, supporting individuals’ return to their communities, and working with the Courts to reduce pretrial sentencing and to expedite hearings for those currently incarcerated.

“The City, State, and federal government must immediately take action to correct the humanitarian crisis on Rikers Island, and provide a safe and clean environment – including ensuring access to medical care for those incarcerated there. The inhumane conditions we witnessed today are a stain on the City and State of New York. Riker’s horrific history must come to an end.”

Banner Image: Rikers Island Complex in 2004, by  Sfoskett. Licensed by CC 3.0

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This byline indicates that this article was penned by a member/members of the Staten Islander News Organization office team. Our staff writers are the backbone of our newspaper, performing all sorts of important tasks like conducting interviews, investigating leads, besides writing the news stories you see.

7 Comments

  • Avatar You guys know me-take 5 wild guesses says:

    Staten Islander: yesterday’s news, tomorrow.

    I love this paper.

    Just sayin’, tho…

    • Avatar Take one guess who this is, Fred. I know it's you. says:

      You’re a d**k.

    • Pat Pat says:

      Ari? Is that you? 🙂

      (I’m just playing…I know it’s you. You actually said this last week. I overheard you talking with Ruthie and Anatoly.)

      You should do standup. You had everyone in tears.

  • Avatar C.R. says:

    What about the guards and non-uniformed personnel who have to STAFF these hellholes?

    I agree that conditions should be better, but there are teachers and preachers in these jails, f’r Chrissake, and if anyone deserves cushy conditions, it’s them,inmates, different story, but it should be livable, not torture, no one should have to live/work or even just be near a scene like Rikers. I know too many guys in Corrections and they really hate their jobs. It’s gross. The pay is good. Yes. There are good beneftis and a strong union. True. Buuuuuuuuuuuuut the jails are a s**thole. Many I’ve talked to regret not becoming cops, but they were called first for the jobs they had.

    • Pat Pat says:

      My uncle is (now retired) corrections. Did he hate it? He never said so.

      I think we have to consider that the inhumane conditions affect us all. How we treat the least of our brethren is a measure of something. Prisoners are people.

      But you are totally right on. The guards are people as well and deserve better. Having feces thrown at you can’t be much fun,

  • Avatar RIP SirTerribleTim #Legend says:

    RIP SirTerribleTim #Legend
    RIP SirTerribleTim #Legend
    RIP SirTerribleTim #Legend
    RIP SirTerribleTim #Legend
    RIP SirTerribleTim #Legend

  • Avatar Mike Jay says:

    I think they were fine. As long as they gave Alexandria a lollipop so she didn’t speak up and mortify everyone with mindlessly dumb comments and questions. I’m not saying she’s stupid far from it. But she really speaks without thinking.

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