Rikers Island Crisis Calls for Immediate Change
By: Kelvin Beachum and Doug Baldwin Jr.
How we treat people matters. It is a reflection of how we, as a society, value them. Today, the horrific conditions on Rikers Island show that officials in New York do not value the lives of the people — disproportionately people of color — imprisoned there.
New York State Assembly Member Emily Gallagher recently described the deplorable conditions at Rikers after a visit by saying, “There’s garbage everywhere, rotting food with maggots, cockroaches, worms in the showers, human feces and piss.” Others described similar horrors: dozens of people packed into tiny locked rooms, some without masks during a global pandemic; people being forced to defecate in plastic bags due to a lack of bathrooms; and lack of access to food and necessary medical care. If the descriptions are not enough, the photos speak for themselves.
Tragically, this year alone, 13 people have lost their lives at Rikers. Another person died after attempting to hang himself in a holding cell in Manhattan Criminal Court while in Department of Corrections’ custody. These people have died from suicide, overdose, after contracting COVID-19, and from other medical conditions. They are the devastating culmination of a broken, deteriorating jail system that is unable to keep the people who are housed there safe; most of whom have not been found guilty of any crime and are presumed innocent.
Mayor de Blasio has laid all the blame for these deplorable conditions on staffing shortages arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. But Rikers has had a long history of abuse and violence, which led to the appointment of a federal monitor in 2015. These conditions did not just appear at the start of the pandemic. It is true that, at the start of the pandemic, large numbers of corrections officers were infected with COVID-19, and the resulting staffing shortages persisted as corrections officers continue to call in sick or simply don’t show up for work. However, the federal monitor made clear in a recent report that “[w]hile [staffing shortages] may be the most current explanation offered by the Department, it is not the only cause of the unsafe conditions, nor is it the only underlying cause of the majority of dysfunction and disorder within the Facilities.”
To date, Mayor de Blasio’s solutions to addressing the crisis at Rikers Island miss the mark. His plan to penalize staff who do not show up for work fails to address the other causes of “dysfunction and disorder.” Adding additional staff will not cure the culture of incompetence and violence that pervades at Rikers.
Governor Hochul’s signing of the Less is More Act, which prevents individuals on parole from being re-incarcerated for non-criminal, technical violations of their supervision, is a positive step in the right direction, but does not go far enough. Although the Governor ordered nearly 200 people who were incarcerated at Rikers for these technical violations to be released, it still leaves thousands of people languishing at Rikers in inhumane, dangerous conditions each day.
Governor Hochul recently announced a plan to transfer approximately 230 women and transgender individuals from Rikers to medium- and maximum-security facilities upstate. This proposed solution is a move in the wrong direction as it introduces certain people incarcerated at Rikers to an entirely new set of threats to their health and liberty, while failing to drastically reduce the population at Rikers. This plan is riddled with issues. It will limit transferees’ access to their attorneys, separate them from their family and loved ones, compromise continuity of services and programming that they were receiving, and incur unnecessary expenses as some are held in maximum security settings while presumed innocent.
If we truly value the lives of the people, then we must do more. Officials must release or place on supervised release people who are incarcerated for nonviolent, low-level offenses. Judges must reevaluate bail amounts and give due weight to a person’s ability to post bail as New York’s recently reformed bail statute requires. The city’s district attorneys must cease requesting bail amounts that people are unable to afford. And the city must prioritize and expedite the plan to close Rikers Island’s doors forever. This past year has made clear that people’s lives depend on it.
Kelvin Beachum is a nine-year NFL veteran currently signed with the Arizona Cardinals and a Players Coalition Task Force member. In addition to his commitments with the NFL, Beachum works directly with advocacy groups to end hunger and provide access and educational opportunity to minority students, specifically in STEM.
Doug Baldwin Jr. is a former wide receiver with the Seattle Seahawks and a Players Coalition Task Force member, a nonprofit founded by NFL players and other pro athletes with the collective goal of making an impact on social justice and racial equality at the federal, state and local levels through advocacy, awareness, education, and allocation of resources.