‘People sleeping in filth, in feces’: Jumaane Williams talks Rikers crisis on both sides of the bars

PIX on Politics

NEW YORK — New York City leaders continue to call for immediate action to fix what they described as unfathomable and inhumane conditions at the Rikers Island jail complex after touring the facility last weekend.

New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams told PIX on Politics host Dan Mannarino on Sunday the conditions he witnessed during the tour were “unbelievable and unconscionable.”

“If I hadn’t seen it myself, it would have been pretty unbelievable. First of all, no one on either side of the bars is safe,” he said. “We saw people sharing bags as toilet bowls … We had HIV patients saying they hadn’t received their medication, same with people with mental health issues. We had people with wounds that hadn’t seen doctors. We saw people who were in showers used as cells … People sleeping in filth and feces … We saw correction officers working doubles, triples, even quadruple [shifts].”  

The problems at Rikers are not new — there is a plan to permanently close the jail complex and move inmates to smaller borough-based jails — but Williams said the conditions have worsened in recent months to a point of systemic dysfunction. 

“It’s a human rights crisis,” he said. “The commissioner I spoke to, Vincent Schiraldi, has some great mid-term plans but we need immediate action.”

At the same time, the public advocate stressed that the toxic and violent culture that exists between correction officers and inmates at Rikers can’t be brought over to the new jail system when it opens.

Some criminal justice advocates have argued reducing the jail population by releasing non-violent offenders would provide some immediate relief for the dire situation, however, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said earlier this week that, “any discussion of emptying out Rikers Island is, to me, ludacris.”

Williams on Sunday said he mostly agreed with the commissioner, except for the “ludacris” part.

“We should remember what happened when we emptied out Rikers. In the 1990s, we were almost at 20,000 people … We never saw the precipitous sharp rise in crime that would have been commensurate with going from 19,000 to 6,000,” he said.

On the other side of the bars, Rikers faces a staffing crisis amid reports of mass call-outs by DOC officers. The head of the correction officer union said his members are overworked, underpaid, and face unsafe conditions.

When asked if DOC should hire more correction officers to solve the issue, Williams said the problem is that new officers won’t be ready until January.

“There are 600 officers being hired, but we won’t make it until January,” he said. “Those officers have a lot of reasons to be complaining and a lot of reasons to be upset, as well as the people who are housed there. It is mismanagement and it has been mismanagement for many, many years.”

Williams said neither Gov. Kathy Hochul or Mayor Bill de Blasio have recently visited Rikers. He called on them to immediately tour the facility.

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