Officials in charge of enforcing safe operations at city jails recently shared never-before-seen photos and videos from Rikers Island with assistant district attorneys in Manhattan, giving the very prosecutors who file criminal charges and request bail an unprecedented look at the squalid and deadly conditions in which defendants are held.
The shocking August presentation, obtained by Gothamist through a public information request, was prepared by the Board of Correction, which oversees and regulates the Department of Correction, for hundreds of prosecutors at the invitation of Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg. It shows: A man defecating in his shorts due to a lack of toilets in the intake area and then being left in his soiled clothes for 11 hours until another incarcerated person — not jail staff — brought him new clothes; a detainee locked in a cage shower for nearly 24 hours before he injured himself; and incarcerated people dragging sick people to medical care, and even administering chest compressions themselves, because assigned officers weren’t present.
The DA’s office asked the Board of Correction for a view inside the troubled jails so prosecutors could better understand the consequences for defendants when filing charges and asking judges to hold defenders as they await trial, according to one person who attended the Aug. 4 Zoom presentation. Defendants face months, and sometimes years, waiting for court hearings.
Prosecutors “never see Rikers — they never see where they’re sending people to die,” said Five Mualimm-ak, a former Rikers detainee who, as a panelist for the event, watched the board’s presentation. “The purpose was: When you’re sending people to Rikers, when you’re asking for high amounts of bail when they’re poor, you’re condemning them to a death sentence, essentially.”
Most of the men and women held at Rikers Island are there pre-trial, meaning they have not been convicted of crimes and are only awaiting hearings on the disposition of their cases. Some have lived at Rikers for years; recently, both the population and the average length of stay in city jails have increased. Nearly 30% of the incarcerated population in the city has been in custody for more than a year, according to the mayor’s office.
Gothamist exclusively obtained a copy of the presentation — about three-dozen slides with redactions to cover up faces and names — through a request to the Board of Correction under the state Freedom of Information Law. While startling images from Rikers have emerged in the past, this presentation represents the most comprehensive visual portrayal of life at Rikers that’s been publicly released since Mayor Eric Adams’ team took over the jails this year.
The images could also provide fodder for potential legal filings seeking a federal takeover of the jails. They include both human squalor, like a photo of a man sleeping on the floor of an intake cell next to a pile of feces, and substandard necessities, like crumbling buildings and moldy food.
Prosecutors were left slack-jawed as they watched the presentation, according to Mualimm-ak. They said: “Wow, is this real? Is this what Rikers really looks like? How are there so many people in one cage? How are they able to move?”
The Board of Correction’s presentation, which several criminal justice experts said was unprecedented, follows frustrated efforts to force improvements and demand transparency at the facilities. In all, 16 people have died this year in city custody or shortly after being released — mostly from drug overdoses and suicide — which equals last year’s death total. Contraband flows through the city jails — about 5,000 weapons were confiscated in the last fiscal year. And a staffing crisis, due to both attrition and large numbers of officers who call out sick, compounds the problems.
Gothamist forwarded the presentation to the Department of Correction, which was not involved in the board’s presentation. Regarding the overcrowded intake pens, department spokespeople said that the number of people in intake changes throughout the day and intake processing times have recently decreased. They also said that the number of staff who call out sick has gone down dramatically in recent months, with about 100 staff members suspended this year for sick leave abuse.
The commissioner of the Department of Correction, Louis Molina, said in an email that the presentation was not a reflection of reality: “These disturbing images represent points in time — not continuous conditions on Rikers Island. Our infrastructure and staffing challenges, which are the result of years of mismanagement and neglect, are no secret.” He said he is implementing an “action plan” in conjunction with the federal monitor who oversees city jails in order to “permanently eradicate the very conditions seen in some of these photos.”
The presentation was made at a fraught time, amid calls for a federal receivership to wrest control of Rikers from city hands, and as political strife over whether to hold certain criminal defendants in New York on bail dominates local political headlines. Bragg, the Manhattan DA elected last year as a progressive prosecutor promising to avoid an overreliance on incarceration, is often the target of such headlines.
The presentation, which was held via Zoom for between 200 and 300 assistant DAs, was part of a larger panel discussion on jail conditions, according to a spokesperson for Bragg, who moderated the panel. The event also dealt with issues related to post-prison life. “This goes hand-in-hand with our mission of safety and fairness, which includes lowering the number of people we send to Rikers and resolving cases of those who have been held for long periods of time as expeditiously as possible,” said Doug Cohen, a spokesperson for Bragg, in an email.
In addition to the Board of Correction presentation, the event featured Mualimm-ak and Stanley Richards, a former city correction official and Rikers detainee who is now the CEO of the nonprofit Fortune Society. Mualimm-ak said it was “brave” of Bragg to hold the event, and he said those who put it together are planning other presentations on incarcerated women and exonerated prisoners. He also wants to hold similar events for DAs of other boroughs.
Titled “State of New York City Jails,” the presentation opened with a photograph from a cell used for the intake of new detainees. Shot on July 19, the image depicts a room so crowded with men — still in their street clothes — that at least two are laying on the floor. Two days later, the men in the same room are now all in white tops and khaki bottoms, but most are lying on the floor.
Another set of images from what appears to be a different pen at intake shows similarly crowded conditions on July 29 and Aug. 3. And yet pictures from that same week show multiple “vacant recreation spaces,” both indoors and outdoors, in the morning and afternoon.
A recent report from the mayor’s office showed that just 7.2% of people in custody in fiscal year 2022 participated in programs, services, and activities. And an average of just 133 were involved in recreation every day, despite a daily population exceeding 5,000.
An image in the presentation, from June 25, is titled “Person in Custody Defecating in the Main Intake due to lack of toilet.” In the picture, a man appears to be soiling his shorts while leaning against a bench.
The next image’s title describes exactly what prosecutors who viewed the presentation saw: “Person in custody sleeping on floor next to feces.”
And a third image is headlined with this: “second person in custody sleeping in the smeared feces. First person in custody is still in the same uniform approximately nine hours after he defecated.”
Finally, according to the presentation, almost 12 hours after the first person soiled himself, he is given new uniform pants — by another person in custody, not an officer.
Regardless of whether the presentation moved prosecutors, their powers when it comes to sending people to Rikers — and keeping people there — are significant. That’s because an assistant DA decides both what charges to file, and whether to recommend whether that person gets locked up — and, if applicable, with or without bail — before trial.
“The prosecutor is almost always the most powerful person in the criminal justice system, and especially after someone's been arrested,” said Alissa Marque Heydari, a former prosecutor at the Manhattan DA’s office from 2013 to 2020 who is now the deputy director for the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Bail reform laws passed in New York state in 2020 limit the kinds of crimes where people can be held in jail if they can’t afford to pay. But prosecutors still have sway over whether bail is set — and how much — on bail-eligible offenses. And they can work with public defenders to agree that defendants should be released on “supervised release,” where they report to a nonprofit program.
Beyond that, prosecutors have leeway over the severity of charges. Most crimes can be charged in a variety of ways, Heydari said, and that also affects whether the defendant is required to stay at Rikers until the next court date.
Prosecutors “are supposed to be ministers of justice,” she said. “So they're not just supposed to think about victims in cases, but they're supposed to think about the accused person or the defendant in a case as well. And so prosecutors should always be thinking about, you know, is asking for bail — is jail — really the right thing here? Does this warrant that, especially given what we know as to what is happening in a place like Rikers?”
Certainly prosecutors who watched the presentation are aware of the humanitarian problems at Rikers. But it was unlikely that they had seen images like this before. And Heydari said from a public safety perspective, it’s vital that they understand where they’re sending young people because “there’s a solid chance [defendants] are going to come out worse than when they went in.”
“The more we can close the gap between prosecutors’ job and where they’re sending people, the better off everybody is going to be,” she said.
Those arrested in Manhattan, and prosecuted by Bragg’s office, make up the plurality of the city jail population — 32%, as of August.
A segment of the Board of Correction's presentation focused on caged “decontamination showers,” which the board has previously said are intended for washing detainees after they’ve been hit with chemical spray that officers deploy to quell disturbances. Advocates and former inmates have alleged that decontamination showers are used to hold detainees in a kind of solitary confinement, and the presentation confirmed that with the inclusion of an actual picture of one such individual in a caged shower for nearly 24 hours. The next image depicts that person being “removed on a gurney due to self harm.”
The Department of Correction’s policy is to use showers for decontamination, not as holding pens or for solitary confinement, spokespeople there said.
The Board of Correction has an office at Rikers Island and a team that monitors conditions, which it calls its “eyes and ears” in the city jails. These monitors are required by law to have unfettered access to correction facilities in order to ensure that regulations set by the board are followed. The team’s findings are not generally made public, and often only surface in reports about deaths in custody released to media outlets and statements made by board members at monthly meetings.
While the Board of Correction has previously alleged that multiple deaths at Rikers are at least partly attributed to correction officers failing to render aid, this presentation showed, through pictures and a video, that sick and incapacitated detainees who were dragged and carried to medical assistance by fellow detainees because officers were apparently not available or present.
“Get another Narcan!” yells a detainee in one video from July 17 as multiple detainees perform chest compressions in an attempt to revive a victim of an apparent opioid overdose. Such overdoses have recently plagued Rikers, with four deaths this year alone.
A final section of the presentation details physical conditions of Rikers Island, which is slated to close by 2027 as the incarcerated population moves to borough-based jails. The images show rotted floor boards, wild vegetation growing up to caged windows, fencing felled by overgrown bushes, severely water-damaged and moldy ceilings, and a hole in a floor.
In the Enhanced Supervision Housing, where people are held in punitive segregation (commonly known as solitary confinement), pictures and video show fire-singed security doors and flooded corridors filled with trash.
One slide is simply titled, “Rotten Food.” It shows two pictures of moldy bread and what appears to be a moldy donut. In response to this picture, Department of Correction spokespeople said an onsite bakery provides fresh bread with all three daily meals, and moldy food is not served on Rikers Island.
Another slide, “Makeshift Laundry,” shows a filthy, trash-strewn room with buckets of city-issued uniforms, a hose, and a water basin.
Elizabeth Glazer, a former city criminal justice official, said she thinks prosecutors who heard the program could at least be influenced to keep detainees out of Rikers by simply moving cases along at a brisk pace, given that people have recently been waiting longer at Rikers for their cases to be resolved. “Prosecutors are able to shorten that amount of time with motions, by moving promptly, by providing discovery on time, by doing all of the things that permit a judge to advance a case,” said Glazer, founder of the new policy journal "Vital City."
The education for the Manhattan prosecutors about life at Rikers isn’t over yet. In the coming days, rookie attorneys from the DA’s office will be touring the jails in person, according to Bragg’s spokesperson.