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People Impacted by Rikers, with Elected Officials, Families, and Community Groups, Rally on the Steps of City Hall to Demand the Closure of Rikers Island

Contact: Yonah Zeitz – 347-201-2768 yonah@katalcenter.org,

Follow online: #CutShutInvestNY #CloseRikers | @katalcenter

Humanitarian Crisis Grows After 19th Death this Year – Most Since 2013

New York, NY – Today, people directly impacted by Rikers, family members, elected officials and community groups rallied at City Hall to demand Mayor Eric Adams close the island jail complex and that the City Council take action to hold the mayor accountable to the closure plan. This rally comes just a day after another person died at Rikers – the 19th death of an incarcerated person in city jails this year, the most since 2013 when the jail population was double its current size.

Nearly 90% of everyone held at Rikers is Black and Latinx, most being held pre-trial and can’t afford bail. Without immediate action, there will be more preventable deaths from our most marginalized community members. Instead of working to save lives and shut down Rikers, Mayor Adams makes daily calls to further roll back bail reform and incarcerate more people in the city’s dangerous jails. Mayor Adams has made clear he has no intention of closing Rikers, let alone reducing the pretrial population in NYC, as the closure plan requires.

Following the rally, the New York City Council Committee on Criminal Justice held a hearing on the crisis at Rikers Island. One bill reviewed by the committee, Int. 806, would establish jail population review teams to “to identify people in custody of the Department of Correction (“DOC”) whose cases could be resolved or who could be safely released into the community.” The Committee also heard testimony on the DOC’s action plan in response to the federal monitor. Under Mayor Adams, the crises at Rikers have gotten much, much worse, and today there are growing calls for a full federal takeover over Rikers through a receiver.

Participants at the rally testified at the hearing, demanding immediate action by the city to cut the jail population, shut down Rikers, and invest in real community safety: housing, health care, education, jobs.

Statements from elected officials, impacted people, and community and advocacy groups: 

Henry Robinson, Leader at the Katal Center, said: “I spent part of my childhood growing up in Brownsville. I saw the devastating impact that mass incarceration had on my community. The devastating impact it had on my family when I was incarcerated. The Mayor is from Brownsville and he knows that our communities need care. Yet, he continues to send more Black and brown people to Rikers. Nineteen people have died in the city’s jails. This is unacceptable. Mayor Adams you need to shut down Rikers and invest in our youth”

Melanie Dominguez, Senior Community Organizer at Katal, said: “The crisis at Rikers continues and it’s only getting worse. Under Mayor Adams, we are witnessing the deadliest years at Rikers since 2013. Over the weekend, the 19th person passed away in city jails. We send our deepest condolences to Edgardo Mejia’s family and loved ones. These are New Yorkers who are dying because of the Mayor’s inaction. It’s truly devastating that the federal courts failed to order a receivership last month. With violence at an all time high and with a population of nearly 6,000, we are nowhere near closing the Rikers island jail complex. This mayor wants to approach every problem by putting more cops in the streets and to put more people behind bars. Our communities need and deserve more than that. Our communities are still feeling the devastating impacts of COVID-19 and we are suffering a housing crisis. The Mayor needs to shut down Rikers and invest in true community safety like housing, health care, education and jobs.”

NYC Comptroller Brad Lander, said: “Edgardo Mejia is the nineteenth person to die at Rikers this year — nineteen too many. Being sent to Rikers to await trial cannot be a death sentence, yet the longer Rikers remains open, the more lives are destroyed. The humanitarian crisis in our City jails, driven by a culture of impunity and mismanagement, endangers both the people detained and the staff who serve there.”

Peter Cook, Executive Director of the New York State Council of Churches, said: “The New York State Council of Churches is concerned that the New York City jail population continues to climb leaving open the possibility that Rikers will remain open, even after the borough-based jails are complete. In order for the close Rikers plan to work, the City must commit to decarceration and dropping the population to 3,300 or less. We are concerned the population is rising and not decreasing because the mayor is placing too much emphasis on expensive solutions like incarceration, rolling back the bail laws, and policing. What we need is more emphasis on cost-effective and holistic approaches to addressing public safety and decarceration. Those solutions include large expansion in affordable housing including re-entry housing, mental health services, investments in public education including CUNY and SUNY, and other initiatives to strengthen the social safety net.”

Victor Pate, #HALTsolitary Campaign Co-Director, said: “It is beyond outrageous that the city jails have killed yet another person, Edgardo Mejia, and no one is taking any real action to protect the lives of our fellow New Yorkers. The only effective solution is for the Mayor, lawmakers, judges, and district attorneys to move swiftly to release people and stop sending people to these deadly jails. Achieving real community safety requires uplifting people, families and communities, not state violence.”

Rabbi Margo Hughes-Robinson, New York Organizer of T’ruah, said: “It is with deep grief that we mourn the death of Edgardo Mejia, and the eighteen other lives lost this year in DOC custody. As Jewish New Yorkers and as clergy, we seek the welfare of every resident of our city, and our commitment to human rights mandates that we pay especially close attention to the welfare of anyone under the city’s care, particularly those who are experiencing incarceration. The conditions of the physical plant at Rikers, the systemic management issues on the Island, and the pandemic have created an extremely dangerous and often lethal situation for all of the New Yorkers who are both incarcerated and who are working on the island, and we have joined with hundreds of leaders from many faiths to call for its closing.  The current conditions on Rikers Island constitute a moral emergency, and it must be closed.”

Monet Smith, Executive Director of Societal Justice Interventions, said:  “A system of putting people in normalized violent environments reproduces more violence, furthers trauma and hence creates a reproducing criminogenic system. We therefore need new solutions that answer the root causes of crime in communities.”

Matt Nosanchuk, NYJA President and NYJCCJR Co-Chair, said: “This past April, the New York Jewish Agenda (NYJA) joined other members of the New York Jewish Coalition on Criminal Justice Reform (NYJCCJR) on a visit to Rikers Island. The failure to meet the serious mental health needs of those detained at Rikers, the lengthy pretrial detentions, the physical conditions, the reported incidents of violence, and the staff shortages, underscored for us the pressing need to make good on the promise to close Rikers once and for all. This need has not diminished; it has only become more urgent.”

Robert Gangi, The Police Reform Organizing Project, said: “Another New Yorker died on Rikers yesterday, a man held on a shoplifting charge. His passing makes for 19 deaths on the Island this year, and for 35 fatalities since January 2021. Conditions on the death trap that is Rikers are unconscionable, are criminal. Guilt for these needless deaths resides with NY’s politicians from Adams on down and with the judges and DAs who send people there daily without regard for the dangers that await them.”

Robin Baker, Co-Chair of the Congregation Beth Elohim Dismantling Racism Team, said: “We are devastated to learn of the 19th death at Rikers this year. Our Jewish obligation to preserve life and pursue justice for all people compels us to condemn the conditions at Rikers and to urge Mayor Adams to swiftly move forward with the City’s closure plan. That should include making immediate investments in supportive housing and no longer advocating to roll back bail reform; we cannot have even more people subjected to the appalling conditions at Rikers. That hurts, rather than helps, public safety.”

Daniele Gerard, Senior Staff Attorney at Children’s Rights, said: “Incarcerated persons continue to die on Rikers, officers are still not showing up for work, and people have been going without showers or food and are left in their cells for hours on end. Young adults are particularly susceptible to these stressors of confinement. This is no way to treat our fellow New Yorkers, especially at a yearly cost per person of more than $500,000. Rikers must be closed, community resources ramped up and fully funded, and decarceration begun in earnest.”

Devin Rodriguez, Member of the Katal Center, said: “The conditions at Rikers Island are horrible and not fit for any human being. We are constantly being punished for somebody else’s actions. The Correctional Officers are so vindictive, that they made a call to take everyone’s personal belongings. They try and try to isolate you from any connection that you have with the outside. A connection that for most of us is what keeps us going. The food that they serve us at Rikers is not edible. It’s simply not humane to not give us access to healthy and nutritious food. They are starving us at Rikers. They are killing us at Rikers. Mayor Adams, you need to shut down Rikers now!”

Kenneth Edwards, Leadership & Organizing Manager at the Center for Employment Opportunities, said: The Center for Employment Opportunities supports the closure of Rikers. Last year, New York City spent almost 3 times (290%) more per incarcerated person than the second most expensive jail system in the country. Redirecting these dollars to address community needs such as advanced training opportunities, and meaningful employment will reduce the flow of people into the system. It is time to reinvest our dollars into the individuals and communities who need them most.” 

Patricia Hernandez, Director, Metro Team, Corporation of Supportive Housing, said: “In early 2022, New Yorkers responded to the largest known citywide survey with overwhelming support for affordable housing as a means to create more public safety. CSH urges Mayor Eric Adams to invest in housing and community resources, including allocating substantial funding for the Justice Involved Supportive Housing (JISH) program, part of the Points of Agreement of 2019. Also, CSH urges the Mayor to revisit the imprisonment of thousands of New Yorkers at Rikers Island, especially considering that people of color and people experiencing housing instability are jailed at much higher numbers than whites. A better intervention lies in supportive housing, which is affordable housing paired with a range of support services, a proven model to end the cycles of people leaving jail or prison and entering directly into homelessness and high-cost emergency crisis systems. Investing in supportive housing is much more cost-effective than funneling people through these systems and back into incarceration and far more successful at reducing recidivism and stabilizing people and communities.”

Kaeshalee Vega, Member of the Katal Center, said:  “It saddens me that we have to continue to advocate for basic human rights for our people who are incarcerated on Rikers Island. I think it is the bare minimum for families to expect their loved ones to receive proper and adequate health care, Mental Health Services, clothing and food. The conditions on Rikers Island are alarming and unjust, yet for years these inhumane conditions have been made public with little to no positive reform. Rikers Island remaining open is continuing to cause physical and psychological damage to the human beings confined there. I was told by individuals recently confined on Rikers Island that the food being provided is unhealthy and on some occasions unrecognizable. What is the money being put in the Department of Corrections budget being used on? Rikers Island is in a state of emergency. Just last month in November, we rallied for the 18 lives lost in city Jails. I am Livid to know we will now be rallying in December for 19 lives lost. Mayor Adams you got blood on your hands. Mayor Adams, in order to save lives, you must cut the city’s jail population, shut down Rikers and invest in our communities. People need access to mental health & reentry services. Shut it down, NOW!”

Nana Asare Nova Felder, Education and Programs Officer at BABA Inc., said: “As we approach 2023 with many unknowns, we must continue to push forward in the spirit of liberty and justice. We have seen many wrongs righted in the last few weeks in regards to the U.S. prison system and beyond. Vacated convictions (Andre Brown), political prisoners sent home to be with family in the midst of a hospice level illness (Mutulu Shakur) and Brittney Griner being returned from her stay in a Russian prison. These are all great happenings but pale in comparison to the work that is still necessary in the United States in regards to the “Prison Industrial Complex”. We have an urgent problem in this country when it comes to justice. The US prison system houses more African American inmates than all 55 countries in Africa combined prison populations, more women are incarcerated than ever, and the city’s jails including the notorious Rikers Island has had 19 deaths this year alone in its facilities. That’s the most since 2013 when the city jails had twice the current population. The state of NY, New York City and its executive, Mayor Eric Adams must go well beyond window dressings for an issue that has been recognized as detrimental by it’s own account. Ninety Percent of Rikers’ prisoners are Black and Latino and are imprisoned on a pre-trial basis because they cannot afford bail. This is an extension of the economic inequities that exist in the United States, effectively creating a new Jim Crow and a second slavery. Rikers Island, New York’s own version of the notorious Angola Prison in Louisiana has been slated to close because of the Human Rights abuses that it is infamously known for. We demand that Mayor Adams carries out the plan of the past administration to close Rikers Island, and to implement a common sense approach to prison reform. We cannot afford to go backward on one of the most important Human Rights issues in the United States today. Close Rikers Now!!!”

Temple Anyasi, Founder of Black Mind, said: “For far too long, the Riker’s Island Jail Complex has brought devastation to New York adults, youths, and their families that have been confined at this torturous jail while they await a fair trial. We cannot forget that the majority of the people held at Rikers are being held pre-trial and haven’t been convicted of anything. However, while they are there they are being exposed to horrible conditions. Conditions that have taken the live of 19 people in this year alone. The leadership of Black Mind supports Katal Center’s work to close Rikers Island and hold the Mayor responsible for the deadly consequences of their policies.”

Diego Garita, NYC Brown Berets, said: “Rikers Island is getting out of control, and it’s been painfully clear that closing the jail complex is not a priority under this administration. What is happening at Rikers should be considered no less than state sponsored violence. Two days ago, another life was lost at Rikers. The City has a responsibility to look out for all New Yorkers. The mayor must shut down Rikers!”

 Avion Gordon, Member of the Katal Center, said: “This year alone, 19 human beings have died in city jails. We have far surpassed the deaths from last year. This is shameful. I feel for the families that have lost a loved one behind bars. I express my sincerest condolences to all of them. You have a community behind you that cares and supports you. I am appalled that we have a Mayor that can’t even recognize that he is hurting families by keeping Rikers open. The Mayor is not prioritizing the lives of all New Yorkers. What else needs to happen to get the Mayor to understand that sending New Yorkers to Rikers is a death sentence? Instead of working to decarcerate and bring people back home to be with their loved ones for the holidays, he has continued to attack proven reforms like bail to drive up the city’s jail population. Our communities need help in the form of housing, jobs, and access to mental health. The solution to these problems will never be putting people behind bars. Mayor Adams you need to shut down Rikers, families across the city shouldn’t be spending the holidays grieving the death of a loved one because you refuse to do what’s right.”

Michael McQuillan, a Member of the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue’s Social Action Committee, said: “We have long known, factually and statistically, that conditions in the Rikers Island jail complex constitute a human rights emergency. This Council three years ago voted 36 to 13 to close the complex over time. That was a mandate for action. Yet 6000 detainees, twice the intended capacity, still interminably await their day in court, their Constitutional rights to prompt trials a farce. Many there sleep in close proximity on tiled floors in shower stalls. All risk intentional or inadvertent violence, the abuse of solitary confinement, and ignored injury or illness. City Council must hold the Mayor accountable and he must commit to closing Rikers. Divest from its inherent brutality. Invest in services that meet human needs.”

Yonah Zeitz, Director of Advocacy at Katal, said: “As the crisis on Rikers Island continues and the death toll soars to record highs, Mayor Eric Adams is doing everything in his power to lock up more Black, brown, and poor New Yorkers. This is unconscionable and will make it impossible for the city to shut down the notorious Rikers Island jail complex. Because of the mayor’s daily calls to roll back bail reform and increase ‘broken windows’ policing, the city’s jail population has risen by nearly 600 since he took office in January. Two days ago, the 19th person this year died in the city’s jails – surpassing last year’s record number and the most since 2013, when the jail population was twice as large. It’s clear the mayor has abandoned the city’s plan to decarcerate and close Rikers. Now the City Council must step in to hold the mayor accountable to the closure plan and drastically change course to prevent more needless deaths on Rikers. People are suffering and dying, and the time for action—the time to close Rikers—is now. Following today’s hearing, the City Council should support the federal government taking over Rikers as it’s clear the DOC is incapable of addressing the longstanding mismanagement and life-threatening conditions at the jail complex. And they must ensure that Mayor Eric Adamst cuts the number of people incarcerated at Rikers Island, shuts down Rikers, and invests in real community safety for all New Yorkers – housing, health care, education, and jobs.”

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