Death and horror in Rikers Island prison in New York

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New York’s infamous Rikers Island, America’s largest prison complex, is currently experiencing a growing crisis of death, disease, filth and barbaric violence. A significant staff shortage caused by the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a complete breakdown of basic services and a worsening of the already horrendous conditions in the prison. At least 14 detainees have died since the start of the year.

Of these, at least five were suicides. William Diaz Guzman hanged himself in his cell in January and Javier Velasco was found dead in March with a sheet wrapped around his neck. Brandon Rodriguez hanged himself in a shower in an admission area on August 10. The death of detainee Tomas Carlo Camacho in March, who was found unconscious with his head trapped in the small handcuff slot in his cell door, was also ruled a suicide.

The Rikers Island prison complex in the foreground with the New York skyline in the background. (AP Photo / Seth Wenig, File)

The death of Anthony Scott, who was taken out of the intensive care unit on October 18, after being found hanged in a Manhattan Criminal Court holding cell, which is not part of the Rikers Complex, added to the prisons’ toll from New York.

Other recent deaths at Rikers include those of Thomas Braunson III, who died of a drug overdose, and Richard Blake, who went into cardiac arrest. According to other inmates, guards ignored Blake’s requests for medical attention for at least two days before his death.

Most of these men were detained for petty crimes and many were still awaiting court appearance.

A staff shortage, compounded by high rates of absenteeism by correctional officers, has resulted in significant delays in the distribution of food, water, medicine and emergency medical care to inmates. In September, nearly a third of the 8,400 correctional officers employed at Rikers did not report for work.

Due to the lack of staff, according to the New York Times, “Gang members and other inmates began to manage the comings and goings of dozens of people in prison dormitories, put an end to fights and administer medical care.

The conditions in the prison complex are reminiscent of the dungeons of medieval Europe. A group of state politicians, city officials and public advocates who visited Rikers last month reported garbage and urine covering the floors in parts of the facility. Dozens of prisoners are crammed into filthy cells without masks to limit the spread of COVID-19, often with overflowing toilets, and are denied communication with their lawyers. In several prison admission units, inmates are held in tiny shower stalls for long periods of time and are forced to defecate in plastic bags. A public defender described the conditions at the prison as “the most horrible thing I have seen in my life”.

Hip-hop artist Terrance Ferguson, known by stage name 2 Milly, who is currently incarcerated at Rikers Island on a firearms charge, told the Daily News that prisoners are treated “as if we were animals”. Ferguson said: “There were over 30 of us, no shower, barely ate. We were subjected to Mace because of other people’s fights. When a prisoner tried to kill himself, “they came and sprayed Mace on him,” he said.

Other media describe a facility in Rikers so poorly run that people argued over clean spots on the floor or disposed of pieces of cardboard to protect themselves from sewage overflows while they slept.

In addition to these barbaric conditions, the pandemic continues to plague the institution. Earlier this month, Otis Bantum Correctional Center, one of Rikers ‘units, was taken into custody due to inmates’ widespread exposure to COVID-19. Only around 50% of staff and just over 40% of inmates have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. More than 20 percent of the 6,000 total prisoners on Rikers Island are under quarantine.

Last month, Isa Abdul-Karim contracted COVID-19 while being held in the overcrowded admission area for ten days, and was denied proper medical treatment. He was short of breath and collapsed after losing consciousness. Victor Mercado, in a wheelchair, died of complications from COVID-19 on October 15.

Over the past year and a half, prisons and prisons in the United States and around the world have been hubs of coronavirus infections and deaths. The virus is estimated to have killed nearly 3,000 incarcerated people and infected one in three people behind bars in the United States. Inmates have been easy targets for the highly infectious and deadly virus.

At Rikers, social distancing is impossible under crowded conditions, and those lucky enough to have received a mask upon arrival do not receive a new mask if they lose or damage their original face covering.

In 2020, under pressure from the pandemic, the city released hundreds of people incarcerated in Rikers, bringing the population to less than 4,000. However, it has now risen to almost 6,000.

A recent report by the Monitor of the New York City Department of Correction, appointed by the court in 2015, revealed the escalation of violence at Rikers and other prisons in New York City during the year. last. According to the report, physical force is currently used by guards against prisoners much more frequently than in previous years. In fact, “the average use of force rate in 2020 was 183% higher than the average use of force rate in 2016,” the report notes.

Confrontation prison staff terrorize the prison population with constant and aggressive searches of cells and regular beatings. Guards often use “improper blows to the head, heavy blows to the body and eliminations, violent blows to walls, painful and dangerous escort holds, unnecessary use of [pepper] spray, and prohibited holds ”on detainees. Emergency response teams, squads of heavily armed guards wearing riot gear, are “called in to deal with even the most common and common management issues.”

These squads of morons “behave with impunity”, according to the report. Prison staff often “file incomplete or false reports” on their use of force against inmates and “do not properly use portable cameras” when interacting with the prison population. Many acts of brutality against prisoners go unreported and those that are reported go unanswered for up to a year. The report goes on to observe that the number of incidents with class A (more serious) injuries “has increased considerably (from 74 in 2016 to 178 in 2020)”.

The Monitor report also notes the failure of Rikers Island and other New York penitentiaries to “meet and / or adequately respond to requests for basic services.” Prison staff “do not immediately respond with the necessary urgency and / or do not take threats and acts of self-harm seriously”.

The conditions at the prison sparked widespread revulsion among New Yorkers. Families of deceased inmates protested outside the Bronx District Attorney’s Office Darcel Clark last week, carrying signs that read: “Stop sentencing people to Rikers to die” and “How many more?”

Melania Brown, whose sister died in a Rikers segregation unit in 2019, told media: “This is the problem we face today, our leaders don’t care. All of this America is one. question of money.

Last month, Democratic New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio took a tour of Rikers Island and defended conditions inside the prison complex. De Blasio reportedly ignored calls for help from inmates as he walked through one of the prisons. He did not meet with any inmates or correctional officers.

The conditions at Rikers are a matter of Blasio’s Democratic administration policy, not negligence, and are just an extension, during the pandemic, of those reported by the office of Preet Bharara, the US District Attorney for the Southern District. of New York in 2014, in what he called a “deep-rooted culture of violence.”

Since that time, Rikers has been the scene of atrocity after atrocity. In 2015, KaliefBrowder, who spent three years on Rikers Island after being charged with theft at the age of 16, committed suicide after his release. Browder had been tortured and starved in solitary confinement without ever having been convicted of a crime. Joseph Foster died in 2017 after his calls for medical treatment were ignored by the guards.

De Blasio subsequently promised to shut down Rikers and transfer inmates to six different prisons spread across the city by 2027. How this will change the “culture of violence” so deeply entrenched in the prison system is never explained. . But little, so far, has been done to facilitate change.

The Democratic mayor’s inaction in the Rikers crisis has only allowed another faction of the Democratic Party to engage in demagoguery and demand that it know that the ruling establishment will never implement.

Democratic Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, of the Bronx, a leading figure in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), last month joined another DSAer in Congress, Jamaal Bowman, and Democratic Reps Nydia Velazquez and Jerrold Nadler , who presides over the House. Judicial Commission, to call on de Blasio and Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul to release almost all of Rikers’ prisoners.

It is nothing but the demagoguery of a group of Democratic politicians, Ocasio-Cortez and Bowman in particular, who have seen their popularity wane among hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers because of their insistence on sending children not vaccinated for COVID-19 in school buildings in September. , resulting in the infection of thousands of students and staff.


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