Rikers Island Crisis
Updated: July 2023
What is Rikers?
Rikers Island, an island in the East River between Queens and the Bronx, contains New York City's main incarceration facility. In the fiscal year 2022, Rikers Island had an average daily inmate population of 5,559, with 17,803 admissions over the course of the year. For years, activists have been working to bring attention to the numerous human rights violations and harsh living conditions at Rikers, which has been experiencing an ongoing humanitarian crisis.
It is important to note that Rikers is a jail, not a prison. It is meant to house individuals held by the courts and awaiting trial, and those sentenced to one year or less of jail time. However, some individuals’ cases have persisted for years, one of the most egregious examples of this being the story of Kalief Browder. According to the 2022 Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report, “data shows that the longer one remains in custody, the greater the likelihood that they will be involved in a violent incident.” As of March 2023, 86.6% of those incarcerated at Rikers are awaiting trial.
Like the U.S. mass incarceration system as a whole, Rikers disproportionately impacts Black people and other people of color. According to a NYC Department of Corrections (DOC) report, 55.8% of the individuals incarcerated at Rikers between January-March 2023 (average daily population) are Black. Similarly, 60% of the individuals who have spent a year or more in pretrial detention in NYC jails are Black, although only around 24% of NYC’s population is Black.
January-March 2023 NYC DOC Population Demographics Report
What's happening at Rikers?
Due to severe staff shortages and a growing population, Rikers has become increasingly dangerous for the incarcerated population. Many have been kept in overcrowded intake cells while awaiting admission, denied food or access to toilets and showers, been subjected to high rates of COVID-19 infections with inadequate medical care, and denied countless other human rights and services.
In 2022, lawmakers and activists continued expressing concern for the ongoing issues at Rikers Island. In September 2022, Gothamist published a report with photographic evidence exposing the dire conditions at the institution. Concern related to the understaffing, gang violence, crumbling infrastructure, and mistreatment of inmates at Rikers continued to grow.
Due to the fact that the incarcerated population at Rikers Island is projected to exceed 7,000 in fewer than two years, New York City Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina has expressed doubt that the jail could stay within the 3,300 population limit and close its doors by 2027.
June 2023: DOC Will No Longer Announce Deaths at Rikers
As of the end of May 2023, the Department of Corrections has stopped notifying the media of the deaths of people incarcerated at Rikers. DOC chief spokesperson Frank Dwyer said that notifying the media of deaths “was a practice, not a policy.” For the past two years, the DOC included the names of deceased inmates in their press releases, as well as their housing facility and the date and time of their death. However, the recent shift has led to the DOC misinforming not only the media, but also the federal monitor responsible for overseeing the deaths and injuries sustained by people held at Rikers.
Stanley Richards, who was incarcerated at Rikers in the 1980s and later served as the department’s deputy corrections commissioner under Mayor de Blasio, emphasizes that the department is moving backwards, “back to the way in which jails were managed decades ago.” Kayla Simpson, staff attorney with the Prisoners’ Rights Project at The Legal Aid Society, asserts that “it’s part of a series of attempts to isolate the jails from scrutiny to control the narrative.” By not announcing inmate deaths, the DOC masks the reality of the violent conditions within Rikers and cuts of inmates from federal monitors, from the public, and from their families.
Take Action / How to Help:
From NY Coalition to Close the Death Camps: Send commissary funds, and fund the inside, or share the fundraiser of someone who is incarcerated. Here are some ongoing commissary funds:
Participate in future social media campaigns like “Rikers is a Death Camp” (through which you can share a post about your abolitionist vision for shutting down Rikers) or “End the Letter Ban Inside NYC Jails Phone Zap” (through which participants pressured DOC Commissioner & the Board of Corrections to allow physical letters into Rikers).
Join the mailing list for Freedom Agenda, a New York-based organization that is fighting to decarcerate New York City and redistribute resources to the communities that have been most harmed by mass criminalization and system racism.
Join Freedom Agenda for member meetings on the first Tuesday of each month at 7 PM to take action together and contribute your voice to this movement.
Donate to the Rikers Public Memory Project to support their work to make the closure of RIkers a reality and ensure that its essential problems are never repeated, in New York City or elsewhere; and to make sure that those who are most affected by Rikers can reclaim that history for themselves (from rikersmemoryproject.org).
Sign a petition to demand the mayor, other city officials, judges, and district attorneys cut the number of people held on Rikers, cut the budgets for the NYPD and Department of Correction, shut down Rikers, and invest in housing, healthcare, education, and jobs for affected communities. #CutShutInvestNY
Contact Mayor Adams to shut down Rikers Jail.
Join the Katal Center mailing list to receive updates regarding their work on ending mass incarceration and the drug war in Connecticut and New York.
Deaths at Rikers (2023)
2/4—Marvin Pines, 65
5/16—Rubu Zhao, 52
5/27—Joshua Valles, 31
7/4—Felix Taveras, 40
7/6—Ricky Howell, 60
Deaths at Rikers (2022)
During 2022, 19 people died at Rikers Island. This is the highest number of deaths at Rikers since 2013, when about twice as many people were incarcerated there.
2/27—Tarz Youngblood, 38
5/7—Dashawn Carter, 25
6/18—Antonio Bradley, 28
7/10—Elijah Muhammad, 31
8/30—Michael Nieves, 40
3/17—George Pagan, 59
5/18—Mary Yehudah, 31
6/20—Anibal Carrasquillo, 39
7/15—Michael Lopez, 34
9/14—Kevin Bryan, 35
3/18—Herman Diaz, 52
5/28—Emanuel Sullivan, 20
6/21—Albert Drye, 52
8/15—Ricardo Cruciani, 68
9/20—Gregory Acevedo, 48
9/22—Robert Pondexter, 59
10/22—Erick Tavira, 28
10/31—Gilberto Garcia, 26
12/11—Edgardo Mejias, 39
Tracking the Deaths in the Rikers Island Jail Complex 2022 (PDF—New York Times—August 16, 2022)
The Q100 bus to Rikers can be a lifeline for families with loved ones inside the jail (NPR—January 19, 2022)
A Look Inside Rikers: ‘Fight Night’ and Gang Rule, Captured on Video (PDF—New York Times—January 12, 2022)
The future of solitary confinement in New York City jails (NPR—January 9, 2022)
Rikers: The Obituaries. Fifteen people at the jail died in 2021. These are their lives — and how they came to an end. (PDF—New York Magazine—December 27, 2021)
Eric Adams Says He Wants to Close Rikers. It May Not Be That Simple. (PDF—New York Times—December 17, 2021)
Rikers Detainees Are Being Transferred From One “Hellhole” to Another (The Nation—October 19, 2021)
How New York City Ended Mass Incarceration for 30 Days and Could Do It Again (Gotham Gazette—October 25, 2021)
No Crime Is Worth That (The Daily—October 14, 2021)
New York's New Death Penalty: The Death Toll of Mass Incarceration in a Post Execution Era (Columbia University Center for Justice—October 12, 2021)
Inside Rikers: Dysfunction, Lawlessness and Detainees in Control (PDF—New York Times—October 11, 2021)
N.Y.C. Sues Jail Officers, Saying Illegal Strike Worsened Rikers Crisis (PDF—New York Times—September 20, 2021)
Hochul Orders Release of 191 Detainees as Rikers Crisis Deepen (PDF—New York Times—September 17, 2021)
AT RIKERS ISLAND, INMATES LOCKED IN SHOWERS WITHOUT FOOD AND DEFECATING IN BAGS (The Intercept—September 16)
Self-Harm Is Exploding In New York City Jails, Internal Numbers Show (The City—September 7, 2021)
Rikers wrath: Families, advocates demand mayor immediately reduce prison population (AMNY—August 31, 2021)
An ‘Absolute Emergency’ at Rikers Island as Violence Increases (PDF—New York Times—August 24, 2021)
COVID Is Surging Back Into Rikers and NYC Jails (Gothamist—September 15, 2021)
Glaring Racial Disparities Persist in NYC Jails: Study (The Crime Report—April 20, 2021)
January 2022 Rikers Hunger Strike:
In January 2022, around 200 detainees and community members engaged in a hunger strike at the Robert N. Davoren Complex on Rikers Island to protest the jail's unjust and inhumane conditions. Those protesting are asked for basic human services like access to mental health resources.
AMPLIFY: Continue to directly follow and share updates from campaigns led by directly impacted New Yorkers, like #HALTsolidarity @NYCAIC.
GET INVOLVED: Sign up and make continued efforts to support advocacy days from organizations like RAPP.
We will leave this information available as long as it continues to responsibly bring awareness to what’s going on. Always follow, listen to, and honor the work of local organizations led by directly impacted community members first.
Hundreds at Rikers Protest Conditions, Citing Covid and the Cold (PDF—New York Times—January 11, 2022)
HEAR IT: Prisoners on Rikers Island stage hunger strike against inhumane conditions (AMNY—January 11, 2022)
Rikers Island inmates go on hunger strike over lack of basic services (NY Daily News—January 11, 2022)
Advocates respond to hunger strike in New York City jails (#HALTsolitary—January 11, 2022)
Rikers in 2021:
During 2021, Rikers Island, home to New York City’s main incarceration facility, experienced an ongoing humanitarian crisis. Amidst a breakdown of jail operations, medical staff was unable to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks, and the spread of COVID infections in Rikers became greater than the spread in New York City.
On September 10, 2021, Ross MacDonald, MD, Chief Medical Officer and Senior Assistant Vice President of New York City Health and Hospitals Correctional Health Services, wrote an urgent letter to the New York City Council Criminal Justice Committee requesting emergency assistance at Rikers. After
witnessing the rise of this crisis, MacDonald writes, he does “not believe the City is capable of safely managing the custody of those it is charged with incarcerating in its jails, nor maintaining the safety of those who work there. The [jail] breakdown has resulted in an increase in deaths which we refer to as jail-attributable, where jail conditions meaningfully contributed to the death.”
At the time MacDonald’s letter was written, 10 people had died in Rikers in 2021, including 4 who committed suicide. Since then, the deaths of 4 incarcerated individuals—42-year-old Isaabdul Karim (PDF), 24-year-old Stephan Khadu (PDF), 64-year-old Victor Mercado (PDF), and 58-year-old Anthony Scott (PDF)—have brought the total number to 14. On September 23, In response to Isaabdul Karim’s death, elected officials, individuals affected by Rikers, friends, family, and community groups rallied outside City Hall. Speakers called for Mayor Bill de Blasio and the District Attorneys and Courts to immediately release those held on Rikers, stop sending people to the facility, and shut down the jail complex, among other demands. On Friday, October 15, city and state leaders announced that more than 200 women will be transferred out of Rikers and to state prisons 40 miles north of NYC. This change, which is meant to alleviate the current crisis, will make it difficult for many families to visit their incarcerated loved ones.
According to Alice Fontier, a Neighborhood Defender Services managing director who toured Rikers Island’s Otis Bantum Correctional Center on September 13, the conditions were “unlike anything that has ever happened [t]here.” Although she’s been visiting Rikers since 2008, the present state of the jail (caused by increasing staff shortages and inhumane conditions) is “the most horrific thing [she’s] seen in [her] life.”
As an art and human rights organization that works with incarcerated populations, ARTE opposes the inhumane treatment and human rights violations occurring at Rikers Island. We have written this statement to share information and spread awareness about these ongoing violations, offer additional learning resources and support, and guide others towards taking action to help put an end to the current crisis. We would also like to make it clear that ARTE firmly believes in fighting for those affected by the criminal justice system, ending mass incarceration, and implementing transformative justice within our communities. Our current incarceration system is broken and abusive, and our ultimate goals are to combat the systems leading individuals towards incarceration (e.g., police discrimination and brutality, the school to prison pipeline).
While ARTE believes in working towards a future where all people are free, we also believe that all young people deserve the right to education and the arts. Over the last several years, ARTE has partnered with other justice organizations to engage incarcerated young people in visual arts programming focusing on women's rights, gender equality, and toxic masculinity. With the COVID-19 pandemic necessitating the shutdown of in-person programs, ARTE transitioned to a remote version of this work to continue fighting for liberation and with the hope that young people on the inside will know they are never forgotten.
To further contextualize ARTE’s work in jails, we would like to share some information about the importance of art in incarcerated spaces. Prison art continues to be widely overlooked in the mainstream art community, thus depriving incarcerated community individuals of the opportunity to creatively express themselves and perpetuating the lack of educational and art resources in these institutions. Although every facility in the United States has different regulations in regards to commissary items, most incarcerated community members do not have ready access to pencils, pens, and paper.
The punitive nature of the incarceration system is designed to strip individuals of their identities and values as human beings. As a counteracting force, art presents a creative outlet for individuals to express themselves and can be a powerful method of transformation. (Artnews.com, Prison Insight, Marking Time). Most importantly, prison art works as a form of resistance against prison life and toward uplifting humanity, rehabilitation, self-expression, and liberation.