Cathy Rojas, the socialist candidate for mayor of New York City, says, “On Sunday, Isaabdul Karim was the 11th recorded person to die on Rikers this year. This is just two days after Governor Hochul signed a law ordering the release of 191 people from Rikers. This action shows how quickly elected officials could release detainees from Rikers. There is no reason to keep them locked up in unsanitary and inhumane conditions. End cash bail and allow poor and working people to be released and await trial at home, not in a jail cell.”
Karim, like many others, had preexisting conditions that made him more vulnerable to COVID-19, but received no medical attention in a facility rampant with exposure to the virus. Rikers has notoriously incarcerated inmates in some of the most inhumane and violent conditions, and since the pandemic began, they have only worsened. From the beginning of the pandemic until now, the population on Rikers has increased from 4,000 to 6,000 detainees.
After a group of elected officials visited the jail last week, they reported horrendously unsanitary conditions with pest infestations in living spaces and food, no air conditioning, broken toilets and plastic bags as a replacement; people who were supposed to go home within 24 hours had instead been held up to three months without access to phone calls or transportation to scheduled court dates.
There has been a surge of deaths – some by suicide, some due to medical or safety neglect, all entirely avoidable. The jail is grossly overcrowded, largely with people like Mr. Karim, who was being held in pre-trial detention. Rather than allowing these people to await the start of their trial at home, they are being caged in a facility that is long overdue for closure. In addition to being held in pre-trial detention, many people are there for technical violations such as breaking parole or having an unpaid ticket.
While Rikers Island has an especially brutal history of violence and dilapidation, it is also the epitome of mass incarceration in the United States at large. It is a holding place for poor, working class, overwhelmingly Black and Brown people who have been preyed on by a racist system of capitalism that intentionally criminalizes and displaces communities, simultaneously building a narrative that blames them for their own suffering.
In these particular moments of crisis covered heavily by the media, the city presents inadequate plans to improve conditions, relieve overcrowding, and revamps the discussion of the eventual closing of Rikers. Whether it be Rikers Island or any other jail or prison across the country, a safe and humane method of incarceration will never exist under capitalism. In order to truly keep our communities safe, we must transform society to one that values human life and dignity over profit, a system that allocates money into proactive social services that eliminate the criminalization and punishment of poverty.