A dozen elected officials visited Rikers Island on Monday in a bid to pressure authorities to reduce the city’s ballooning jail population. The appearance, which Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office reportedly tried to delay, follows new reporting by WNYC/Gothamist and The City that’s revealed rising rates of self-harm and multiple deaths at the troubled facility in recent months.
At a press conference following a tour of the island, several state leaders expressed disgust at the city’s treatment of incarcerated residents and jail staff.
“What we saw today was horrific,” said Queens Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani. The representative described speaking to a detainee who said he’d been stuck in an intake area for seven days without access to a bed or toilet. “He told me of how many incarcerated people were in that same situation: forced to relieve themselves in the very room they were supposed to sleep in,” he said
“Trash all over the floors, broken doors to the cells,” said Alessandra Biaggi, a state senator representing the Bronx and Westchester. “We wonder why corrections officers don’t want to come to work. It is unsafe inside of Rikers Island. It is unsafe for everybody inside of Rikers Island.”
Since the beginning of this year, advocates have argued the jail complex is incapable of providing detainees with basic services due to a spike in the number of corrections officers calling out sick or skipping work.
In the face of this staffing crisis, the Democratic lawmakers have called on the mayor, Governor Kathy Hochul, and the courts to release more incarcerated people as a way to decrease the number of detainees per staff member. Their demand stands in contrast to that of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, which has waged a public campaign pushing the city to hire more jail guards.
“Decarceration must happen and it must happen now,” said Phara Souffrant Forrest, a Brooklyn assembly member, who is sponsoring the Less Is More Act. The legislation would keep people from being sent to jail for alleged technical parole violations, such as missed curfews or marijuana use.
Last week, Governor Hochul said she would consider the bill, but noted she had many other pieces of legislation to consider. At the rally, Biaggi criticized this response.
“It’s something that can be signed as early as today,” Biaggi said. “To make excuses that there are hundreds of bills on [the] desk of a new governor is just that, it’s an excuse.”
In response, the governor's press secretary, Hazel Crampton-Hays, said "Governor Hochul is deeply concerned about the situation in city jails" and is "exploring options, including reviewing legislation, to keep New Yorkers safe."
The group of lawmakers also called on the mayor to grant work release to those serving sentences in city jails, and for prosecutors and judges to send fewer defendants into pre-trial detention. De Blasio himself hasn’t visited Rikers Island since before he won re-election four years ago.
Jessica Ramos, a state senator from Queens who also toured Rikers on Monday, said she witnessed floors littered with dead cockroaches, fecal matter, and rotting food, and she argued the crowded conditions and dysfunction could worsen crime.
“Starvation, torture, violence, not getting medical treatment for their physical and mental health is not a recipe to rehabilitation,” she said. “That is not a recipe for safety. It is a recipe for violence, and for continued violence out on our streets.”
State figures show the city’s jail population has steadily grown over the past year, even as reports of violence and self-harm have continued to spark rising concerns among activists, detainees, and their families.
This article was updated to include a response from Governor Hochul's office.