The omicron variant of COVID-19 adds more ‘fire’ to the already volatile prison situation from Rikers Island. This Thursday, human rights defenders and elected leaders confirmed that since last Friday night, 200 inmates started a hunger strike to push for the lack of medical care and services in general, as the pandemic makes ravages that jail.
“The hunger strike at the Robert N. Davoren Center (RNDC), one of eight units on Rikers Island, is another example of why the humanitarian crisis must be addressed immediately “he cried out Joanne Page, director of The Fortune Society outside the penal center located in Queens.
It was found that in four bedrooms with 50 people each, the inmates have refused to eat since last January 7.
In addition, all the complaints indicate that access to basic services is very limited, because at least 30% of prison workers from different units, until this Tuesday they had called in sick.
According to the activists’ description, other strikers they complained about the cold inside the bedrooms from jail when temperatures dropped below freezing this week.
Spokespersons for organizations and other initiatives to support the prison population, assure that more than 370 detainees have tested positive recently by the virus. And less than half of the inmates are fully vaccinated.
“Never before has Rikers been worse. We cannot describe what is happening here with the cold, the pandemic and the lack of personl ”, he related Sharon Ferrer of the community defense and integration organization Exodus.
Advocates also report that the pandemic has forced “Prolonged isolations” to hundreds of groups of prisoners, who for days, have not been able to count on recreational activities or access to the library.
“It’s a great torture room where for many weeks whole units are denied everything. Until I come out to breathe, ”said the Salvadoran Mariela Ceballos, on the outskirts of the largest jail in New York, while waiting for some news of his intern son for three months.
The City: “There is no strike”
But for the purposes of the Department of Correction (DOC), in practice there is no “hunger strike”, and its effects are being exaggerated, since the “Protestants” have access to buy products in the commissary.
“A group of detainees refuse to receive food from the institution. We are committed to them and their concerns. The City is addressing this crisis. Our employees have been working tirelessly to keep our facilities and everyone who works and lives in them safe, “he said. Jason Kersten, in an interview with The New York Times.
In contrast to this official version of the protest inside the prison, Christopher Boyle, Director of Policy and Data Research for the Advocates Service He assured that denying the inmates’ action is a “pretty bad argument.”
“Basically they are saying that the hunger strike is not on, and they are rejecting all this food, but they are getting the fries from the commissary, to sustain themselves for this entire period of time,” Boyle reinforced.
The activist stressed that it is precisely on the list of complaints that the prison commissary is “out of supply.”
For their part, community leaders reiterate that due to the loss of personnel at Rikers, in recent days the inmates are experiencing “their worst moments”, because they do not have minimum services, contact with their defense attorneys, family visits and access to your emails.
The most “exasperating and unfair”, argue the activists, is that the pandemic wave in the Big Apple has put further delays in the presentation of detainees and defendants in criminal courts, which are also experiencing a personnel crisis that “Condemns” hundreds of people to be behind bars, without even having a firm conviction.
“This hell has to stop”
Among the elected leaders who voiced their support for the strikers and requested that an emergency plan be eased, is the Manhattan councilor, Carmen de la Rosa, who stated that in the city “supposedly the most progressive and richest in the country” there are schemes that violate minimal Human Rights.
“We understand that there is a new Administration in the City that barely has days. But there are steps that can be taken now, such as ensuring more staff. The new Mayor must speed up basic services in this penal center ”, said the Dominican politician.
In this sense, Councilor De La Rosa stressed that in alliance with a group of colleagues from the City Council, she will fight for Mayor Eric Adams to reflect on the application of solitary confinement. It is a disciplinary practice whose total elimination has become a “point of honor” for defenders of the prison population.
“This new Council will confront this practice of torture and to ensure that in this pandemic crisis, inmates have access to medical services. We have heard testimonies from people who are sick with COVID-19 and their family has not heard from them for weeks. This hell has to stop”, Concluded De La Rosa.
At the other end of this controversy, correctional officers also have a clear position.
“We have to have a mechanism to be able to segregate inmates who are violent with prison officials and with non-violent inmates. When will legislators realize that correctional officers need protection? The reforms cannot be unilateral ”, he has insistently stated in recent weeks Benny Boscio, President of the Benevolent Association of Correctional Officers.
The union leader argues that officers should use solitary confinement to punish rebel detainees, otherwise, your team will be increasingly at risk.
“What should happen to the inmates who attack correctional officers for no reason? This is our reality every day ”, he shared on his Twitter account.
Since September 2021, when a State Assembly commission inspected the conditions denounced by activists and defenders in Rikers, which they described as “infernal”, a series of measures have been addressed by both the Government and the Mayor’s Office, but the fury of the omicron variant again puts the public eye to this prison compound, with a population of more than 5,400 inmates in preventive detention.
¡Close this prison now!
The debate on the Rikers Island closure and demolition project It also escalated in the heat of the protest held this Thursday on the sign that identifies this prison in the Hazen Street and 19th Avenue in Queens.
“We are appealing to those who are in leadership in the mayor’s office and those who have the ability to influence change, to demand strong and radical action immediately. It is currently a place of inhumanity and a place where trauma and pain lodge, which should be closed now, “he said Andre Ward, associate vice president of the Center David Rothenberg for Fortune Society Public Policy.
Elected officials who have visited the jail are also asking the municipal president to take action, even going as far as formally requesting that the prison facility should be shut down immediately.
“We must end the practice of solitary confinement. it’s torture. It has devastated many, especially our LGBT + communities We must close Rikers Island now! Close it! ”Demanded the concejal Shekar Krishnan.
The closure of this prison, whose project was approved by the Municipal Council, It is planned for the year 2026.
An activist speaks: “They treat them like animals”
The activist of Puerto Rican origin, Ruben Medina, 34 years old, spent 16 years paying prison in the New York penitentiary system, managed to change his life and today works in the Exodus organization, with the mission of reintegrate the recently released into their communities.
“Whoever speaks to you knows perfectly what happens in there. Nobody told me. And I must tell the authorities to understand that when a person who made a mistake is subjected to all these calamities, they are building a much worse person, which will one day return to the communities ”, commented the resident of The Bronx.
Ruben, after spending almost half his life behind bars, and suffering the weight of disciplinary measures, such as solitary confinement, draws the attention of the traumatic effects that these measures cause in the youngest.
“What we know is that those who are on hunger strike, in there today, They are kids (young) who practically begin their life. And sadly they made a mistake. But this system that treats them like animals, it will make them worse. “
The Exodus counselor, who also joined the request to improve the conditions of the inmates, punished even more by the COVID-19 outbreak, reasons that it is not only a Human Right, but a matter of “logic” .
“I was in prison. I accepted my crime. I experienced what isolation means. Spending days in a tiny room, with bars, not talking to anyone, listening only to screams. I was punished for a hard head, for doing stupid things. I still live that trauma. Today, thanks to God, I am a new person, rehabilitated, who is at the service of others. The idea is that those who get out of prison do not turn out to be criminals, for having made a mistake when I was young ”, he concluded.
Violence and blood in NYC jails:
- 10 prison facilities manages New York City, eight of which are located on Rikers Island, plus two jail rooms at Bellevue and Elmhurst Hospitals.
- 16 people have died in New York City jails, including five who have committed suicide in the past 13 months.
- 3 times greater is the use of force in these prisons since an independent monitor annually reports the violence.
- 38 incidents involving serious injuries between January and June 2016 compared to 239 in the same period in 2021.
- 23% of New York’s prison population is of Hispanic origin according to the trends of the last 5 years.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.