Rikers Island. Photo: formulanone / Wikimedia Commons. Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

It pains us to write of yet another death at Rikers Island. Earlier this year we spoke with Lezandre Khadu, the mother of Stephan Khadu, one of the 16 men who died in Rikers in 2021. Over the course of many hours, we were able to piece together this account of his final days. 

In March, our civics reporter Felipe De La Hoz explained what exactly was going on in the beleaguered jail. He’s back today with an update following Riker’s 10th death this year.

After dying of an apparent drug overdose in his cell, 31-year-old Elijah Muhammad went undiscovered for hours and was already exhibiting signs of rigor mortis when corrections officers found him. One employee has been fired, and the incident is under investigation, but such investigations have come and gone with little in the way of resolution for the underlying issues. The situation has many New Yorkers wondering: what can be done?

Some might be a bit confused by the fact that they’ve heard of a federal monitor, but current court disputes center on whether a judge should appoint a federal receiver. What’s the difference, what powers does each have, and how could it help those in custody?

A photo from a February 2022 protest against Rikers. Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado / Epicenter NYC

First, let’s take a quick run through the exact issues plaguing the notorious jail complex, which opened 90 years ago (not coincidentally, 10 years after the site began to be used as a landfill for city waste). In an indictment of our collective response to this often out-of-sight-out-of-mind human rights disaster, the problems aren’t all that different from the ones that were apparent a decade ago, despite a declining jail population. These mainly center on violence — whether unchecked violence committed by detainees against each other, or by officers against detainees — and health, often involving a lack of proper mental and physical intervention for a population that has higher rates of mental health issues, chronic diseases and drug use.

In 2011, a class-action lawsuit was brought against the city, Nuñez v. City of New York, alleging that it was violating the detainees’ rights by consistently failing to guarantee their safety. In 2015, the parties reached a settlement that included the appointment of federal monitor Steve J. Martin, a criminal justice expert who had served as a defense lawyer, a prosecutor, a jail official, a consultant and other roles in and around jails and prisons.

The distinction between his role and that of a potential receiver is that the receiver would have direct executive authority over the whole of the Department of Correction (DOC), not only investigating and preparing reports and recommendations but essentially taking over the department’s functioning — issuing policies, hiring and firing, and getting to cut through some of the onerous regulator and labor restrictions that have supposedly prevented the city from taking decisive action sooner.

The labor angle is worth mentioning specifically because, among longtime observers of the system’s functioning and failings, the role of the Corrections Officer Benevolent Association (COBA), the union that represents corrections officers in the city, is determinative and cannot be overlooked. COBA as an organization has a colorful history, including the recent sentencing of longtime COBA president Norman Seabrook on corruption charges including memorably having received $60,000 cash in a Ferragamo bag as a kickback, but its most notable impact has been helping to drive a persistent staffing shortage at Rikers.

Many of the problems run to some extent downstream of this shortage: violence is endemic because entire units are left essentially unstaffed for long stretches of time. Medical emergencies and suicide attempts can go unnoticed as guards fail to conduct periodic rounds and ignore request for assistance. It’s crucial to note here that the reason for the understaffing is not that the DOC lacks an adequate headcount. In fact, there are currently more corrections officers than there are detainees, owing to the fact that the daily jail population has declined to well under 6,000 on average, driven by criminal justice and bail reforms.

Photo: VGstockstudio / Shutterstock

Instead, thousands of officers simply don’t show up. Many have spent prolonged periods on sick leave, and even when they return they can be placed on modified duty that restricts their ability to have contact with — and consequently, assist — detainees. New Corrections Commissioner Louis Molina has promised to rein in the sick leave abuse, but has so far not quite managed to show meaningful progress in addressing the crisis. As things stand, the city and the court have agreed to an action plan, in consultation with the monitor, the plaintiffs’ lawyers (who represent the detainees), and the U.S. Attorney’s office, to turn things around. They have until November to show compliance, though the plaintiffs and some others (including the New York Daily News editorial board, on which I sit), have been pushing for a receiver already.

In the meantime, it may be difficult for regular New Yorkers to know what to do or how to respond to this humanitarian catastrophe being effected in their name. The basest imperative is to simply not let it all fade into the background. Rikers is, quite literally, disconnected from the city itself, an island out near LaGuardia airport that can stay out of mind for those lucky enough to never have any direct involvement with it, either personally or through friends and family. The current crisis is unacceptable, and New Yorkers have the right and the moral imperative to pay attention and press the Adams administration to make immediate improvements.

If it cannot commit to doing so, it shouldn’t fight the prospect of receivership, a notion that should be understood and supported by regular people who object to the prolongation of an inhumane situation overseen by their own representatives. It’s also not the case that borough-based jails that are planned as part of the longer-term Rikers closure plan will automatically be better. The problems are structural, and while the remoteness and inaccessibility of the island makes it worse, they won’t go away just because the venue changes. Whether we like it or not, the situation at Rikers is on all of us.

Photo: Nataliia Yankovets / iStock

If you’re seeking out voices from inside a prison, consider checking out the Prison Journalism Project, which trains incarcerated writers to be journalists and publishes their stories. 

Consider this recent essay from a writer incarcerated in Missouri: “my mind is consumed by the fear of death — and all the times I’ve been forced to confront it while locked in this prison. 

During the pandemic, I worked in the prison hospice. I sat with COVID-19 patients and watched them fight for their lives, only to eventually succumb to the disease. 

There were times when I would stand in the unoccupied hospice cells and allow silence to envelop me, knowing someone had just died here. Sometimes I would touch the bed or run my hand along the top of the empty locker to try and feel remnants of the energy of whoever died. 

Many thoughts passed through my mind during these times alone, but the biggest one was always: What does it feel like knowing you will die in a cold prison cell and never experience freedom in the outside world again?”

Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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