Statement on Rikers Island Crisis
Over the last month, Rikers Island, home to New York City’s main incarceration facility, has been experiencing a humanitarian crisis.
Due to severe staff shortages and a growing population, Rikers has become increasingly dangerous for incarcerated populations, many of whom have been kept in overcrowded intake cells while awaiting admission and denied food or access to toilets and showers. Amidst this breakdown of jail operations, medical staff is unable to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks, and the spread of COVID infections in Rikers is now greater than the spread in New York City for the first time this year.
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, 24-year-old Stephan Khadu, 64-year-old Victor Mercado, and 58-year-old Anthony Scott—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.
Below are some ways to learn more about what is going on at Rikers and help support the incarcerated communities there and across the country:
Ongoing Rikers Crisis Information/Resources:
Rikers Detainees Are Being Transferred From One “Hellhole” to Another (The Nation—October 19)
No Crime Is Worth That (The Daily—October 14)
Inside Rikers: Dysfunction, Lawlessness and Detainees in Control (New York Times—October 11)
N.Y.C. Sues Jail Officers, Saying Illegal Strike Worsened Rikers Crisis (New York Times—September 20)
Hochul Orders Release of 191 Detainees as Rikers Crisis Deepen (New York Times—September 17)
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)
An ‘Absolute Emergency’ at Rikers Island as Violence Increases (New York Times—August 24)
COVID Is Surging Back Into Rikers and NYC Jails (Gothamist—September 15)
Glaring Racial Disparities Persist in NYC Jails: Study (The Crime Report—April 20, 2021)
Send a letter: Demand NYC District Attorneys Let our People Go! (Color of Change—September 29)
We are calling on you (our fellow human rights/social justice organizations and community members) to educate yourselves on the Rikers humanitarian crisis and take a stand against the gross human rights violations being committed. We hope that you use this document as a resource and share/reference it freely. If you have any other resources or documents that you would like us to add, please email firstname.lastname@example.org, and we would be happy to do so.
***Please note that upon signing, your name and organization will be publicized on this page and on ARTE social media.***
In loving gratitude and resistance,
Art and Resistance Through Education (ARTE)
Aimee Wissman—Returning Artists Guild
Christopher Sachs—The Right Now Project
Kate Kenney—Rehabilitation Through the Arts
Otis Johnson—H.E.F.T. Human Development Organization INC.
Pamela Neely—New Hour for Women and Children
Stephen Tosh—Boys' Club of New York
Wendy Jason—Justice Arts Coalition