First Responders

Rikers Island Misery: Poop Bags, Dead Inmates, and Ghost Guards

September 22, 2021Noelle Wiehe
Rikers Island

Housing thousands of inmates, Rikers Island is a 413-acre island in the East River between Queens and the Bronx. It houses New York City’s main jail complex. Image from US Geological Survey EarthExplorer.

On its worst days, Rikers Island is 413 acres of fetid misery.

And most days are bad now. The home of New York City’s main jail complex is increasingly where inmates go to kill themselves.

Since December 2020, at least six men have hanged themselves with their issued linens. Five more perished while waiting for medical care, dying in cells that reek of human waste because prisoners are forced to relieve themselves in bags.

On Friday, Sept. 17, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed into law the Less Is More Act, legislation she hopes will help preserve human dignity in the dank cells of a jail inexplicably nestled within “a prosperous, mighty city like New York.”

But Hochul’s reforms might not take effect for six more months.

And although the bill promises to free about 200 inmates held on often trivial parole violations, such as missing curfew, some critics contend it doesn’t go far enough to empty the Empire State’s cell blocks.

Others fear it will release dangerous criminals to the streets.

“We welcome Governor Hochul’s commitment to addressing the unprecedented crisis in our city’s jails, but we respectfully disagree with how effective this legislation will be,” the New York City Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association President Benny Boscio Jr. wrote in a prepared statement emailed to Coffee or Die Magazine.

The union leader warned that more than 6,000 inmates will remain in the facility, often in unsanitary conditions, on felony charges, unable to be bailed out, while those who are released could pose a threat to citizens.

“Less criminals in our custody only means more crimes will be committed in our streets, creating more victims and that is an injustice,” Boscio said.

But reformers with an eye on fixing Rikers Island and New York City’s other notoriously noxious jails point to the injustices visited on inmates and on taxpayers.

The city’s penal institutions employed about five correctional officers for every three inmates in 2020, according to the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice.

Compared with the national average in 2018, that’s a staffing level about seven times that of most jails nationwide.

And the city’s taxpayers spent more to house inmates than any other municipality did — about $438,000 per year to incarcerate a single person in 2020.

That’s nearly five times what Los Angeles pays per prisoner per year, according to the Vera Institute.

Although it’s expected to close in the next few years as the city moves to a borough-based jail system, Rikers also operates under a federal consent decree designed to curb widespread violence behind its bars.

The latest scandal: Hundreds of Rikers guards take sick leave on any given day, exacerbating conditions for officers working overtime.

In 2017, the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform released a groundbreaking report on the jail system.

It urged municipal leaders to shutter Rikers Island and replace the sprawling complex with modern facilities citywide, streamline the criminal justice system, and end the unnecessary incarceration of thousands of inmates.

The blue-ribbon panel is better known as the Lippmann committee because it’s helmed by the distinguished Jonathan Lippman, the former chief judge of the state of New York.

He told Coffee or Die that Hochul’s legislation was a small but substantial step toward reforming Rikers, mostly by moving nonviolent offenders out the door.

“It’ll help,” Lippman said. “It’s not the only answer, but it certainly will help.” 

To Lippman, cutting crime starts with cleaning up Rikers, “where people are not treated with dignity and respect.”

“You turn people into hardened criminals by putting them in there instead of getting them help and letting them lead useful lives,” he said, adding that the bad conditions inmates face are dangerous to correctional officers, too.

Bill de Blasio is now a lame-duck mayor, but four years ago, he vowed to shutter Rikers.

It’s still there, squatting on an East River islet between Queens and the Bronx, and it’ll be there for at least six more years, according to City Hall.

“Don’t get me wrong, I get it, Rikers is a dangerous place for the people who work there as well as the inmates, but that doesn’t change the fact that people out there meet their responsibility,” Lippman said. “There’s no excuse for allowing that to happen.”

Read Next: Postcard From Oklahoma: Sooners Vow To Aid Afghan Refugees

Noelle Wiehe
Noelle Wiehe

Noelle is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die through a fellowship from Military Veterans in Journalism. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and interned with the US Army Cadet Command. Noelle also worked as a civilian journalist covering several units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment on Fort Benning, before she joined the military as a public affairs specialist.

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