NEW YORK — Decarceration advocates and correction officers alike blasted conditions in the Rikers Island jail facility, where nine inmates have died this year.
Lawmakers toured the jail Monday and described “horrific” conditions inside. Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani called for Gov. Kathy Hochul to immediately sign and implement the Less is More bill, which could put 1,000 detainees up for release. During the visit, he spoke to an inmate who attempted suicide on the same day as detainee Esias Johnson’s death.
“He chose to attempt death over living a life of life in this facility,” Mamdani said.
Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas said she and State Senator Jessica Ramos witnessed an attempted suicide inside Rikers on Monday.
Lawmakers described raw sewage in Rikers. They said inmates aren’t getting enough food or access to medical care.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has defended efforts to improve conditions at Rikers. He advocated a since-delayed plan to shut the facility and move to community-based jails.
“We, for years and years, have been working to change the situation in a place that’s just profoundly broken, that should have been closed a long time ago, and we are closing it,” he said. “But we have invested a huge amount to try to fix that situation, even in a place, bluntly, we shouldn’t be anymore.”
Correction Officers Benevolent Association members have protested over the conditions and staffing issues. COBA filed a lawsuit against the New York City Department of Correction in Queens Supreme Court in July, calling conditions for officers at DOC facilities nothing short of a human rights emergency requiring immediate attention.
Union President Benny Boscio lambasted de Blasio, who he said hasn’t visited Rikers in four years. He agreed inmates weren’t getting what they needed, but said that comes down to “eight years of neglect.”
“They created this mess and now they want to let all the criminals out in the street as if there’s not enough crime in the street. Yes, inmates are suffering, corrections are suffering – 25+ hours working straight, no meal breaks,” he said. “And then they wonder why we’re not coming to work? Why officers are AWOL? Assaults on my members are through the roof.”
According to Boscio, a correction officer hasn’t been hired in three years even though more than 1,000 officers have resigned since 2019 on top of officers retiring.
“We want everybody to be safe, but reform is a two-sided coin,” he said.
While Boscio said lawmakers have been focused on helping inmates and not on assisting correction officers, Meghna Philip of Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem said the situation at Rikers has been “ignored, pushed aside and hidden.”
“Six thousand people are trapped on this island in inhumane, torturous conditions,” she said. “It is literally about life and death.”
DOC Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi said he shared lawmakers’ commitment to improving conditions at Rikers.
“We have been very clear about the many challenges we have been facing for months, as well as everything we are doing to address the underlying conditions, and it is a good thing that the elected officials who visited today now have a first-hand picture,” he said. “That can only help our efforts.”
PIX11’s Lauren Cook contributed to this report.