Incarcerated men living in a jail facility on Rikers Island say they are on 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.
While the Department of Correction pushed back on the severity of the strike, now in its fifth day, over the past year more than a dozen inmates have died in custody, violence has increased and backlogs in the courts due to the pandemic have kept people behind bars for longer periods.
Detainee Ervin Bowins reported that his unit has been denied access to mail and packages, recreation, mental and medical services, and the law library to work on their cases. In a voicemail Bowins left with an attorney, he said these are “mandatory minimum standards for a human being.”
The attorney, Christopher Boyle of the New York County Defender Services, estimated about 200 people at the Robert N. Davoren Center on Rikers Island have not taken meals since Friday at midnight. He said staffing shortages mean fewer services, and the unit where they’re housed is particularly cold during this week.
“Everything is limited to a degree that’s never been seen before,” Boyle said. “And they’ve had enough. They’ve finally said this is what we’re going to do to get some attention.”
Boyle first publicly sounded the alarm about the hunger strike at a Board of Correction meeting on Tuesday. “If you’ve got 200 men that are committed to a hunger strike, you know that some of those guys are ill or diabetic — what do you think is going to happen in the next 24 hours when they’re not eating?” Boyle asked. “I just don’t know what you are all doing when this is going on and you are not doing anything about it.”
Other hunger strikers complained of the cold inside their jail dorms as temperatures plunged below freezing this week.
Lack of medical care appears to be the most significant issue for people incarcerated on the island. Councilmember Tiffany Cabán, whose district includes Rikers, told the Board of Correction that she met a detainee on an unannounced visit last week who told her the only way he could see a mental health professional was if he cut himself and was placed on suicide watch.
The Department of Correction said in a statement that detainees are refusing meals provided by Rikers, but are still eating food purchased from the commissary. A spokesperson also said the warden is in talks with the men and is working to provide safe conditions.
Most of the approximately 5,400 people at Rikers are pre-trial detainees who have yet to be found guilty of their alleged crimes.
By many measures, Rikers conditions have recently deteriorated. Sixteen held in city jails died last year, 15 of them at Rikers. Incidents of self-harm nearly doubled for a period last year, according to the federal monitor appointed to oversee the jail. Rates of violence have also increased, and residents have reported that the intake area where detainees are first processed is infested with vermin, and lacks beds and working toilets. Backlogs in the courts due to the pandemic have resulted in people being locked up for longer, awaiting disposition of criminal charges.
The new Adams Administration got off to a controversial start in addressing the crisis at Rikers. One of the first moves by Mayor Eric Adams’ newly appointed correction commissioner, Luis Molina, was to fire the deputy commissioner for intelligence and investigation, Sarena Townsend, who was in charge of reviewing use-of-force cases and was disliked by the correction officers’ union. At a Board of Correction meeting on Tuesday, Molina refused to discuss the firing.
Molina also acceded to a demand from the Correction Officers Benevolent Association union to make it easier for officers to call out due to illness under the department’s unlimited sick leave policy, despite the fact that an exorbitant number of sick calls have exacerbated staffing shortages.
As of Tuesday, about 30% of staff were out sick, according to the Department of Correction. Detainees have long complained of missing medical appointments because so many guards call out of work that there are no staff members available to transport people.
“There’s just not enough officers to walk anyone around,” Boyle said.
Boyle said the hunger strikers live in a dorm-like setting with beds about a foot apart.
Those seeking to ease conditions for those at Rikers also said they are concerned by Mayor Adams’ announcement last month to reverse a plan to end solitary confinement at city jails. Adams said it’s an important tool to isolate dangerous inmates, despite the fact that extended confinement is widely viewed as a violation of human rights.