Rikers Island Jail, New York City: Shut Down This Torture Hellhole!

October 5, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


Aerial photo of the huge Rikers Island jail complex, New York City. Photo: U.S. Geological Survey

Rikers Island jail complex sits in the East River, right next to Manhattan. It has an average of 14,000 inmates a night. Brutal beatings, torture by isolation, and other horrors are happening daily in this hellhole only miles from New York City’s skyscrapers.

In 2014, the New York Times reported that use of force by guards at Rikers had gone up nearly 90 percent over the previous five years, even as the jail’s population had declined. In the first six months of 2014, guards at Rikers used force on inmates 1,927 times—an increase of more than one-third compared with the same period the previous year.

Rikers is supposed to be a place for people who are waiting weeks or months for a trial (and still supposed to be presumed innocent) and for those who have been given less than a year’s sentence. But in reality, thousands of people have ended up here for years, “waiting for their day in court” while being subjected to brutality and torture and denied medical and mental health care.

Of those imprisoned at Rikers on an average day, some 90 percent are Black or Latino, 85 percent have not had a trial or been convicted of a crime, and 40 percent suffer from diagnosed mental illness. Hundreds of them are teenagers.

As of last March, it was reported that 400 people had been at Rikers for at least two years without being convicted; half a dozen had been there for six years. Some 1,400 people had been waiting at least a year to have their cases settled, some of them arrested for crimes that wouldn’t even have sentences for that long if they were found guilty.

Brutality Against Mentally Ill and Juveniles

Kalief Browder. Photo: Screen Grab from ABC News

The standard “treatment” for Rikers prisoners with mental illness is beatings, pepper spray, and solitary confinement.

In 2013 a Black prisoner, Jerome Murdough, a former Marine, died of hyperthermia while on psychotropic drugs, locked inside a cell where the temperature was 101 degrees. Murdough had been homeless when he was arrested for trespassing.

Earlier this year, in June, Kalief Browder took his own life—driven to do this by the torture and brutality he was subjected to during his years at Rikers. He was only 16 years old when he ended up at Rikers, accused of stealing a backpack! He was held in solitary confinement for two years and repeatedly beaten by prison guards and other inmates. He refused to plead guilty, insisting on his innocence. Finally, the charges were dropped and Kalief was released, but he was unable to escape the damage of the years of torture and abuse.

Denying People Medical Care

Over the last five years, poor medical care at Rikers played a role in the death of at least 15 prisoners.

In 2014, Bradley Ballard, 39, a schizophrenic prisoner, died after being left alone in his cell for seven days. He was denied some of his medications for diabetes and mental health issues and his toilet was clogged and overflowing. He was found naked, covered in feces, with his genitals swollen and badly infected. He was taken to the hospital and died hours later.

Andy Henriquez was brought to Rikers when he was only 16. After three years, he was still waiting for trial and was put in solitary confinement. He had been complaining of chest pains for months, but none of the guards took him seriously. On April 7, 2013, he called out for help, but the guards did nothing. Other prisoners who shouted out in alarm were also ignored. Andy Henriquez died from a tear in his aorta.


In June 2015, the NYC government agreed to some “reforms” and federal “oversight” at Rikers in relation to a Department of Justice lawsuit. Whatever changes that may go on are NOT going to address what fundamentally gives rise to all the crimes against prisoners that are taking place at Rikers. This is not about expanding guidelines for use of force, “video cameras,” “accountability,” and “better training.” This is about a system that needs mass incarceration because there is a whole section in society—millions and millions of Black and Latino people, especially the youth—that the system has no use and future for. This system needs to control and contain this volatile force in society—and uses its police, its IN-justice court system, and its prisons to do this. The crimes being carried out at Rikers are part of this horror.


This article is adapted from a piece by Li Onesto posted at revcom.us June 29, 2015: “Reform” Rikers Island Jail? No! Shut This Torture Hellhole Down!



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