The sun sets over Rikers Island | The Riverdale press

By Joseph De La Cruz, Michael Hinman, Sarah Belle Lin & Ethan Stark-Miller

It is a name that could evoke serenity and relaxation. But Letchworth Village was anything but.

For decades, the huge complex covered nearly four square miles of Rockland County and housed thousands of people diagnosed with physical or mental disabilities. Too much, in fact, as Geraldo Rivera discovered in a 1972 article published for ABC News, which first gained him national attention. Residents – especially children – were forced to live in unsanitary conditions, often with no clothes to wear and nothing to do.

It was enough to create such a national outcry that an entire nation radically reformed services for people with disabilities.

With Rivera’s film crew was a former cop turned congressman who just couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

“I have visited prisons all over the country,” said US Representative Mario Biaggi. “I have visited hospitals all over the country. I visited the worst bricks in the army. I’ve never seen anything like it ”Letchworth.

How could he know, less than half a century later, that his granddaughter would experience something tragically similar. But it wasn’t the state of Letchworth Village, Senator Alessandra Biaggi on tour last month – it was Rikers Island instead. A place also hidden away from prying eyes, this time on a square mile of land mostly created by landfills in the middle of the East River. But not hidden enough.

“I find it hard to describe it without sounding hyperbolic or crazy,” the senator said. “In fact, it’s worse than it looks. It was horrible. “

Before looking to the future, we must first look at the past

Unlike Letchworth, Rikers Island is not overcrowded. In fact, the overall population is much smaller than its peak, thanks to a number of political changes in recent years, such as bail reform that will not allow judges to keep people charged with misdemeanors and felonies. nonviolent behind bars simply because they cannot afford to pay the court.

Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in 2014, pledging to shut down Rikers Island, replacing it with a number of small prisons scattered across the five boroughs.

City council backed de Blasio with a pledge of $ 8.7 billion to build smaller prisons – something council chairman Corey Johnson claims to be safer, more humane, and full of services some may have need, such as vocational training or psychological counseling.

But not everyone on the board signed on. Carlos Menchaca of Brooklyn says de Blasio’s plan does little to explain why people go to jail in the first place. Shutting down Rikers and building new prisons, he adds, is a boon for developers, not those who risk incarceration in the first place.

Even if the small prisons could function, they just aren’t big enough, Republican Staten Island City Councilor Steven Matteo said. These smaller facilities would only house 3,300 prisoners – far fewer than the more than 7,000 prisoners forced to live in Rikers now.

“It will require putting more potentially dangerous offenders back on the streets,” Matteo said, “endangering public safety”.

New York City bought Rikers Island from the descendants of its namesake, Abraham Rycken, in 1884 for the equivalent of over $ 5 million today. Even its sale was controversial. Long Island City, which was then part of Queens and not part of New York City itself, also wanted the island. Back then, New York was keeping many of its prisoners on what is now known as Roosevelt Island, and Rikers Island would be perfect for a new prison.

The island was not just a place to send potential criminals. It was also a repository for the city’s trash, creating mountains that could challenge even palisades – and continued to be a regular feature of Rikers Island until the 1939 World’s Fair.

Today, Rikers Island can house more than 10,000 inmates. But as Alessandra Biaggi made her way through the sprawling compound, she concluded that the prison shouldn’t have even a few thousand inmates, let alone 10,000.

A tour filled with horror story after horror story

Biaggi was joined on her recent tour of Rikers Island by U.S. Representative Jamaal Bowman, City Public Counsel Jumaane Williams and Assembly Member representing the island, Kenny Burgos. The first thing the group saw as they entered the main prison facility was how garbage covered the floor.

Upon entering, Biaggi and his colleagues spoke to as many inmates as they could. One after another, each had a horror story to share. Many were not receiving medication for chronic illnesses such as disabilities and HIV. A man, who said his schizophrenia had not been treated by prison officers there, showed the group the insect bites that covered his legs.

They “looked like chickenpox,” Biaggi said. “There is no other way to describe it. And it was just because of the bedbugs and lice.

There was also a sense of hopelessness among many inmates, the senator said, realizing that many had not been able to call their families or lawyers since their incarceration. In many cases, family members did not even know they were there.

“Not being able to contact their lawyers is obviously a human rights violation,” Biaggi said. “But it’s also a constitutional offense. You are entitled to it.

Yet nothing could prepare Biaggi and his group for what they found in the prison admission area.

There, groups of 20 or more prisoners were crammed into small cells. One even attempted to hang himself in front of lawmakers, who could only watch in horror.

Many deaths at Rikers could be prevented

The lack of social distancing could suggest that Rikers has long passed the coronavirus, but that’s anything but. COVID-19 ultimately claimed the life of Victor Mercado, a 64-year-old Mott Haven resident who was being held in Rikers on a weapons charge.

Courts were in the process of granting Mercado emergency release from prison when he died – one of 10 deaths behind Rikers’ walls this year alone.

“The number of people dying in the city’s prisons is horrendous,” said Zachary Katznelson, representing the Independent Commission on Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform for New York City.

“It’s significantly higher than in previous years.

Suicide still remains one of the main culprits of deaths in prisons like Rikers. And the dangerous living conditions there do little to help alleviate that, Katznelson said. A federal court comptroller counted 18 stab wounds in Rikers in September alone, mostly at a facility that mainly houses older teenagers and adult men. Since the beginning of October, there has been at least one stab or cut in Rikers per day.

Felix Guzman knows this firsthand. While incarcerated at Rikers, he felt the atmosphere was so bad that it almost drove him to the brink.

“The imminent threat of imminent death is a stark reality,” Guzman said. “I was suicidal because I felt uncomfortable and unsupported as a person, but rather felt like I was caught in the system. There is a palpable tension in the air, an uncertainty over what every moment residing on Rikers Island brings. “

While most of the 50 people who have died in New York City jails over the past five years were linked to medical issues, Katznelson believes lives could have been saved.

“Many deaths are unfortunately directly related to personnel issues at Rikers,” he said. “About a third (of the staff) don’t show up on a given day. It is seriously understaffed right now for hours – and days – at a time. If there is a medical emergency, people are not able to get help.

A first-hand look at working on Rikers

Those who show up on any given day can’t help but feel the pressure, not only over personnel issues, but all of the politics surrounding what is happening at Rikers Island.

“It’s probably the worst I’ve ever experienced since I’ve been there, to be honest,” said one correctional officer. The Riverdale press, asking that their name not be revealed since they are still working there.

The lack of enthusiasm for the wok is not just due to one event, but rather to many who have a lot of exhausted and stressed out uniforms.

“It was difficult for a lot of us just because there was so much that we had to deal with,” the officer said. “I mean, I dread going to work just because no day feels like it’s the same.”

The anger felt towards law enforcement since George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis over a year ago hasn’t helped either.

“I mean, it’s all been a long time coming,” the officer said. “For a long time, there were a lot of rules that were put in place that prevented us from doing our job. “

Rules like keeping a physical distance from the people incarcerated there no matter what. Getting hold of an inmate – even if he attacks first – is now considered an absolute last resort.

“Literally an inmate can hit you in the face and then raise their hands,” the officer said. “The minute they put their hand up, that’s it. You can’t do anything to them. You have to eat this punch.

Even solitary confinement has changed, correctional officers say – much more in favor of inmates than those charged with guarding them.

“They can have 15 days in the ‘box’ which is nothing like what you see in the movies,” the officer said. “The ‘box’ now has its own (recreational) room, its own shower, and they even have (computer) tablets with Wi-Fi so they can send emails and messages to friends, play games or watch movies if they wish. .

“They did it.”

But that’s not how Biaggi sees it. During her visit last month, she visited the solitary confinement area, finding it was anything but. Hundreds of cell doors were smashed, allowing prisoners to roam freely. Others in isolation had working doors, but had no running water or working toilets.

“Some of them didn’t have windows,” Biaggi said. “In fact, they’ve been placed in shower cells, sitting in their own feces for days. One of the guys was coughing up blood and clearly in need of medical attention. He was basically ignored until we brought in one of the guards. “

Biaggi was not born when her grandfather visited Letchworth with Geraldo Rivera, exposing to the world the atrocities they found there. But make no mistake, there is a lot to display at Rikers, the senator said. And something needs to be done about it – and soon.

“There is a whole series of outrageous things going on in this,” Biaggi said. “And the fact that it takes as long as it takes to put some sort of remedy in place … makes me understand why people are cynical about the government.” Because it is a humanitarian crisis.

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