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NY Governor Makes Move on 'Out of Control' Rikers Island

Kathy Hochul signs new legislation, releases 191 prisoners to relieve overcrowding
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 17, 2021 9:41 AM CDT
Updated Sep 18, 2021 8:30 AM CDT
Lawmakers Paint Gross Picture of Rikers Island
This March 16, 2011, file photo shows a barbed wire fence outside inmate housing on New York's Rikers Island in New York.   (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

(Newser) Update: State lawmakers who'd lobbied New York's governor to address the overcrowding crisis at Rikers Island have seen results. Per CBS, Kathy Hochul on Friday signed the Less Is More Act and ordered 191 inmates, most with technical parole violations, to be released from the beleaguered prison complex. Another 200 or so prisoners will be transferred out of Rikers—which Hochul called a "pressure cooker—to state prisons, per the New York Times. The paper notes, however, it doesn't think Hochul's move will "significantly reduce overcrowding" at the prison holding more than 6,000, nor will it have much effect on staffing issues or the recent spike in COVID cases there. Much more here. Our original story from Friday follows:

New York City's most well-known prison was plagued with dysfunction even before the pandemic. Now with COVID in the mix, Rikers Island has become an "absolute humanitarian crisis" that desperately needs significant reform, according to state lawmakers. Axios details some of the issues, including increasing staff shortages, unsafe sanitary conditions, lack of food and medical care, and eyebrow-raising practices by guards—and a lack of accountability when those practices are called out. The Guardian notes that most of Rikers' inmates, many of whom can't afford bail as they await trial, are Black or Latino.

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New York State Assembly Member Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas spoke to CBS News about her recent visit to the island complex, and her feedback is grim. In addition to spotting roaches, spoiled food, and urine and garbage on the floor, Gonzalez-Rojas says she saw inmates crammed into spaces together, sometimes without access to clothes or showers, with some of their offenses as minor as missing a parole curfew. She says she even witnessed a suicide attempt. Per the New York Times, the situation at Rikers has "spun out of control" so much of late that 10 people have died there over the past year, including five by taking their own lives.

The paper also details the understaffing conundrum, with an "extraordinarily large number of staff" calling in sick during the pandemic or simply not showing up at all. One process this affects: intake, which is when new prisoners get a medical checkup and receive their uniforms and housing assignments. Without enough guards to expedite intake, which typically can be done in less than 24 hours, that wait has now stretched to days or even weeks, in which the prisoners in limbo are temporarily housed in units that may not even have beds.

The complex is set to shut down in 2027, leaving five-plus years to contend with. Earlier this week, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled the Emergency Rikers Relief Plan, a five-point initiative to address various issues. Lawmakers aren't satisfied and are appealing to new Gov. Kathy Hochul to help address the overcrowding issue via proposed legislation to release prisoners who have just minor technical parole violations. "No one deserves to be in these conditions," Gonzlez-Rojas tells CBS. Meanwhile, internal documents show that Department of Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi has thrown his hands up at implementing many reforms because "inmates are too violent and there's not enough space to house them safely," per the New York Post. (Read more Rikers Island stories.)

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