Rikers Island, New York’s notorious jail complex, is reportedly the ‘scene of a humanitarian crisis’
Rikers Island has been the subject of controversy for the last few years. What’s been going on in this jail complex?
Located between the New York City boroughs of Bronx and Queens in the East River, Rikers Island is the location of a large, sprawling correctional facility. Controversy follows this jail complex, which is one of the largest in the world. Dubbed New York’s most famous jail by The Economist, this complex has entered the news again, even after former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in 2017 a decade-long plan to close it.
Over the course of the last year, several news outlets have reported on the conditions of Rikers Island, describing them negatively. As recently as Tuesday, the New York Post reported that there are unanswered questions around violence in the facilities.
Rikers Island houses thousands and thousands of inmates on a daily basis. Here’s an explanation of who goes to Rikers Island, as well as a look at the recent controversies surrounding this notorious complex.
What is Rikers Island?
Miles away from Manhattan, Rikers Island is a jail run by the New York Department of Corrections. The New York Times said that this complex has multiple jail buildings. More than 4,800 detainees are at Rikers on any given day. Most commonly, the jail houses people who await trial.
But others are also at Rikers. New York magazine explained that inmates also include those who are serving shorter sentences for misdemeanors (one year or less) or because they cannot make bail. Unlike prisons, where inmates can remain for lengthly sentences, jails like Rikers are usually temporary cells before a person stands trial. Rikers has facilities for men, women and adolescents.
The New York City Department of Corrections indicated that most buildings in the complex were not completed until at least the 1970s and 1980s. There is a hospital on the island in addition to the detention centers.
What’s going on at Rikers Island?
NBC News described Rikers Island earlier this year as the “scene of a humanitarian crisis.” The outlet spoke with Benji Lozano, who spent five months at the jail, and spoke about the conditions of the jail.
“Why is there not anything being done about what’s happening at Rikers Island?” Lozano asked. “It was disgusting.”
Vincent Schiraldi, former commissioner of the Department of Corrections in New York City, was asked about violence in Rikers and he said, “There were several units that were unstaffed completely, there was no correctional officer physically in the unit and I can’t remember looking under a sheet or a mattress and not seeing a shank under one of them.”
In NBC News’ in-depth look at Rikers Island, the organization showed clips of footage from inside the detention center, which included an inmate attempting to stab an officer and inmates organizing fight nights, compelling some unwilling participants to be involved in the fights.
Fox 5 New York did an exclusive with Louis Molina, who was appointed commissioner in 2021, after Schiraldi. Molina was appointed after several commissioners and a federal monitor were unable to address the issues of violence, corruption and understaffing in Rikers.
When Molina arrived at the facility, he found that safety measures were not followed: some detainees had sharpened plexiglass into homemade knives and some cell doors were easily opened when they were supposed to be locked.
Molina’s appointment came right after a deadly year for Rikers Island: 15 inmates were killed. New York magazine reported, “In all, 15 people died at or shortly after leaving Rikers in 2021.” Some inmates had died by suicide, others by what seemed to be too-large doses of methadone (a medication to combat opioid withdrawal) and others died because of untreated medical issues. Before their deaths, some of them experienced violence inside the jails.
More recently, according to the New York Post, Molina “had argued last week it was ‘not unreasonable’ to limit the out-of-cell periods to seven hours daily in the George R. Vierno Center, which houses ‘individuals most prone to violence’ and accounts for nearly half of the slashing and stabbings on Rikers since May, according to the variance request.” Molina had extended cell confinement to 17 hours a day for inmates at one jailhouse in the complex.
The New York Post reported that Molina has missed two meetings in a row of the monthly Board of Correction meeting, “leaving members of the oversight agency irate over unanswered questions about violence in local lock-ups and one controversial solution.”
This comes around the same time as the New York Post’s report that the city Department of Corrections allegedly may have tampered with records to hide violations of local laws and federal orders.
When is Rikers Island closing?
While Mayor Eric Adams backs former mayor de Blasio’s plan to close down Rikers Island, according to The New York Times, the plan to close Rikers by 2026 has been extended to 2027. Given the variability of construction of additional facilities in New York City, along with the cost, that date could change as well.