Hunger Strike At Rikers Island As Detainees Protest Conditions
Photo by KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images

Hundreds of Rikers Island inmates are on a hunger strike, “protesting conditions such as lack of medical care and access to other services that have persisted since last year due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of staffing at city jails.”

The protest began on Saturday, and one detainee, Nelson Pinero, said “’It just gets worse and worse,’ adding that vermin such as mice and water bugs frequently interrupted his sleep. ‘I don’t wish this upon nobody.’”

Currently, approximately 5,400 people are being detained at Rikers. Many of them are pretrial detainees, which means they have not even been found guilty by a jury of their peers in a court of law. In what has been an ongoing problem since last year, posts at the jail continue to remain unstaffed, which also causes inmates to miss court appointments due to the lack of available staff.

Alice Fontier, the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem’s managing director, said “They haven’t named anybody specifically, because of the conditions and the fact that you know they are denied basic medical care, they have been on regular lockdowns…The simple reality is that many of the problems are worse because they’re still happening…The longer you don’t have access to adequate medical care, the longer you don’t have rec, the longer you don’t have law libraries, the longer your cases drag on because you can’t get to court or they keep getting adjourned, the worse it gets.”

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In interviews, protestors said for weeks that they haven’t been allowed outside. One jail official, who spoke in an unauthorized capacity, said that those protesting were quarantining per COVID-19 protocols, explaining that this is why they were restricted from leaving the housing areas.

Jason Kersten, a Department of Correction spokesman, “said that there was no hunger strike. ‘A group of detainees were refusing institutional food and instead eating commissary food’…‘The warden is engaged with them and addressing their concerns, and our employees have been working tirelessly to keep our facilities and all who work and live in them safe.’”

Last year, sixteen people died in custody, making it New York City jail’s deadliest year since 2013. “One state lawmaker called the conditions at Rikers ‘hellish’ after seeing the jail in person,” and New York County Defender Services lawyer, Christopher Boyle, said “This is an emergency situation.”

Meanwhile, this demonstration is occurring as Louis Molina transitions into his new role as Department of Correction Commissioner, “as he takes control of a department that has lurched from crisis to crisis for decades, and has struggled to remain functional during the pandemic.” Moreover, the new Adams Administration is already facing controversy over the handling of the Rikers crisis, and many are concerned about “Mayor Adams’ announcement last month to reverse a plan to end solitary confinement at city jails…[which] is widely viewed as a violation of human rights.”

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