NYC Public Advocate Calls For Executive Action In Response To Rikers Emergency

September 15th, 2021

Press Release

Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams issued the following statement as the City Council Committee on Criminal Justice holds a hearing regarding the ongoing crisis on Rikers Island.

"I hope that the Mayor and Governor are listening today as I and others detail the horrors that have become the norm on Rikers Island. They still refuse to go to the facilities and witness the experiences of incarcerated people and staff for themselves. This failure to see the suffering and trauma up close is the only explanation for why they have still not adequately responded to the extent and urgency of this emergency. It is also, in part, by design - the out of sight, out of mind nature of Rikers Island as an institution remains deliberate and dangerous.

"My office will be pursuing any communication by City Hall surrounding the lack of response to these warnings in the last weeks and months. We need to know where the Mayor has been as conditions mounted to the current level of crisis - we know he wasn't on Rikers."

The Public Advocate formally submitted his requests for immediate action to alleviate these crisis conditions in a letter to both executive leaders today. The letter also details several of the experiences of incarcerated people and corrections staff which the Public Advocate witnessed on his Monday tour.

Public Advocate Williams spoke before the Council at the virtual hearing on Wednesday, discussing his own observations at Rikers and his fears of further deterioration. His comments are available below, and video can be accessed here.

TESTIMONY OF PUBLIC ADVOCATE JUMAANE D. WILLIAMS TO THE NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL COMMITTEE ON CRIMINAL JUSTICE HEARING ON CONDITIONS IN OUR CITY JAILS SEPTEMBER 15, 2021 Good Morning, my name is Jumaane D. Williams, and I am the Public Advocate for the City of New York. I want to thank Chairs Powers and Miller, and the Committees on Criminal Justice and Civil Service and Labor for holding this hearing.

Two days ago, I was one of the elected officials to tour Rikers island, and honestly, no words can describe the inhumane conditions, trauma and pain that I saw. I'm simply stunned that a City that prides itself on how it tries to do its best for New Yorkers can literally leave detained people, along with vulnerable staff, to fend for themselves in the most violent of situations. I thought there would be an Attica-style uprising. These conditions are so bad that I thought an actual riot was going to break out while we were there. In fact, one almost did, and we didn't feel safe. No one feels safe- and based on what I saw, I can understand why.

We have people detained for the smallest of infractions. People are detained for a fist fight, or for technical parole violations, and made to sit across from garbage, rotten food, feces, urine; using shared bags as toilets; with limited access to water, shower or meals. The people on Rikers Island are not afforded recreational time to get fresh air, much less access to phones or transportation to take them to their court dates. Everyone on the island is on edge. There are people who have made weapons for self defense or protection. One of those weapons fell out of someone's pocket while we were touring, that person had to be apprehended. People with broken or fractured arms are denied medical attention, people living with HIV are literally being denied their medication for at least seven days. One trans prisoner, moved from one housing to another. People with mental health conditions with no medications for weeks.

People were seen lying on the concrete. We heard stories of people going hours without food, unless they beg for it. We aren't treating those with mental health conditions. We saw two unclothed men in a shower room who appeared to need assistance. Instead, they were simply standing there, alone, virtually staring into space. There are people who are housing in the showers. One was there for a few days, and we did not know whether it was urine or water dripping from him.

We fail Correction Officers who endure triple shifts, and other conditions that have only eroded morale. Some Officers, primarily women, complain about being sexually harassed, abused and assaulted while on tours.

Let's be clear, this is a human rights crisis. NO ONE should be treated this way. This city has failed every single person who is detained and works on Rikers Island.  And let's remember most of the folks on there have not been found guilty of something - even if they have, they shouldn't be treated this way. I would remind us that both communities on this island are black and brown. If it were different on either side, we would not be here.

With all that I have described, as someone who spent less than a day touring Rikers Island, why do we think anyone would willingly abide by all the restrictions in place? How long must people go without speaking to their families? I spent a few hours calling families, letting them know that their loved ones were physically okay. How long must anyone go without a single meal a day -- that they do not have to demand numerous times? How long must people feel that they are constantly susceptible to violence, with no recourse? And let us be clear: this administration was warned for months and for years that this would happen. This administration has known for months of the problems Correction Officers experienced, and seemed to wait until we got here. This administration is responsible for deteriorating standards I've described. I hope when Dean Fuliehan testifies, he will take ownership of the problems here. We all must take ownership for not listening to COBA and the many people who have called. The number one person is the Mayor.

The families of Layleen Polanco, Kalief Browder, Esais Johnson, Brandon Rodriguez and so many others have told us time and time again that the City failed their loved ones, and this continues to happen. Five people on Rikers Island have died by suicide over the last nine months, and astoundingly, from April to June of this year, the Department of Correction recorded 539 incidents of incarcerated people hurting themselves, pushing the rate up to 95 such incidents per every thousand detainees - the highest in the last five years.

There have been multiple instances of Correction Officers being hurt. Further, poor staff management and old administrative policies have only led to the detriment of detained individuals and corrections officers. The health and wellness of incarcerated people cannot be fully actualized when there are missed appointments, little to no recreation time and physical and sexual violence pervasive within these jails.

Last week, my colleagues and I met with DOC Commissioner Schiraldi to discuss how all actors can play a part in re-humanizing everyone who lives and works on Rikers Island. The proposed improvements by the Commissioner are needed and overdue, and they are a great mid term plan, but we must do more now, while we work to close Rikers Island once and for all. Everyone, and I mean everyone--elected officials, district attorneys, judges, the Mayor and the Governor--must act right now. It is time to move beyond myths--like bail reform as the cause of increasing crime--and judge s must be trained n how to administer the new bail law; judges must schedule more cases on the daily court calendar and accept more writs of release; it is tie for judges to come back to work and start working on these cases. I understand judges have been concerned about going to work, but we cannot have other people suffering while judges stay at home. The Governor must sign the Less is More Act and release everyone on a technical parole immediately; we must ensure the supervised release of women and continue to shut Rikers once and for all. We can all work together and we absolutely must.

I look forward to hearing all the steps DOC has in place to urgently improve conditions on Rikers Island, and what steps DOC has already taken to alleviate these conditions. Until then, we must remember that everyone on Rikers Island deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.

To the Mayor, over the past year, I have to say it is appalling, after reports from what we heard and the federal monitor, there is a refusal to visit Rikers Island, and I call on the Governor to do the same. Thank you Chairs Powers and Miller for your time.

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