Crisis at Rikers Island Inevitable Consequence of Mass Incarceration

Crisis at Rikers Island Inevitable Consequence of Mass Incarceration

There’s a complete disaster happening at Rikers Island. Rikers Island is an island in the East River between Queens and the Bronx. It’s home to New York City’s main jail complex. And it’s now making headlines after New York City politicians visited the facility and witnessed what can only be described as a humanitarian crisis.

These lawmakers saw intake cells crammed with a dozen or more men. They saw shower stalls serving as prison cells. They saw garbage laying all over facility halls. And they saw fecal matter, rotting food, urine and dead cockroaches all over the floor. As though that isn’t bad enough, the lawmakers even saw one incarcerated person try to kill themselves.

Even Rikers Island’s Chief Medical Officer knows the situation is a crisis.

If you’re worried that this is some kind of political stunt because the messengers are lawmakers, have no fear: Ross McDonald, MD, the Chief Medical Officer of Rikers Island, knows it’s an emergency, too. He wrote the City Counsel, “asking for your urgent assistance with an emergency situation that I do not believe the City of New York’s able to remedy on its own.”

“Specifically,” he continued, “I ask that you urge the city to ask for outside help to immediately stabilize a situation that has resulted in death and threatens the health and well-being of everyone who works and resides in city jails.”

Image courtesy of FTiare via iStock by Getty Images.

Media outlets and politicians will report on the condition of Rikers Island as though it is an alarming surprise. The conditions are alarming. But they’re not surprising. After all, it made Mother Jones’ America’s 10 Worst Prisons list in 2013, almost a decade ago. What you’re seeing at Rikers Island isn’t a surprise. It’s the inevitable consequence of a nation having the highest incarceration rate in the world and seemingly no desire to fix it.

Some are calling for action, but New York officials haven’t listened.

Thankfully, some lawmakers are taking the situation seriously and offering meaningful advice on what to do next. Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas offered some tangible actions that New York officials could take now. For instance, district attorneys could stop asking for cash bail. Mayor Bill de Blasio could also release people from Rikers Island. And New York Governor Kathy Hochul could sign the Less is More Act.

Until these temporary actions and more permanent actions happen, though, Rikers Island will remain a national disgrace. And it’s also likely to be a sign of things to come if the United States continues down this mass-incarceration path.

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