Advocates press on for population reduction at Rikers

Formerly incarcerated activists and advocates call for the release of detainees

Rikers Island Rally

Rikers Island Rally Angelique Molina-Mangaroo

Advocate groups rallied outside Rikers Island in response to the latest detainee death at the jail – the passing of 38-year-old Tarz Youngblood on Sunday. Youngblood was found unresponsive and pronounced dead at Elmhurst Hospital. The homeless man had been on Rikers since September on multiple charges. His passing marked the first under newly appointed Commissioner Louis Molina. 

Black Attorneys of Legal Aid Caucus (BALA), Color Of Change, Freedom Agenda, VOCAL-NY, among other organizations, were joined by elected officials and formerly incarcerated activists at the rally demanding immediate action to reduce the population at Rikers.

Among the problems at Rikers are allegations of harsh treatment of detainees, including lack of medical care, compounded by Department of Correction staff shortages and COVID-19 lockdowns. Detainees, in response, staged a recent hunger strike at Rikers. The strike did little to improve the conditions at Rikers, some of the advocates said. 

“I was a teenager when I spent 19 months on Rikers Island, when the population was over 21,000. It was a crisis back then. Decades of lack of transparency, decades of lack of accountability contributed to the crisis. And the pandemic exacerbated the crisis. Jail guards not going to work exacerbated the crisis” said Darren Mack, formerly incarcerated activist and organizer at the Freedom Agenda. “Although the hunger strike has ended, the suffering, the dehumanization and the corruption has not ended…New York City has the largest DOC budget in the country. We spend the most money on DOC and get the worst resultss, that’s a crime.”

In 2021, a total of 16 detainees at Rikers died. The latest death is the first of the year.

“They call him casualty 12, but that was my sunshine.” said Lessandra Kadu, mother of Stephen Kadu, a Rikers detainee who died in September 2021. “No mother should go through what I’ve gone through and am still going through. I got a call on September 22nd around 10 o’clock, another inmate called my daughter screaming that my son was dead, that’s how I found out my child was dead. I haven’t seen my son in two years because of the pandemic. I had zoom visits. We need to decarcerate now before someone else loses their lives. Another mother goes through what I’m going through everyday. It's been five months that I've woken up without my son and it’s the most hurtful thing that I have to go through.” 

Elected officials, including City Council Member Tiffany Caban, also came in support of decarcerating Rikers detainees.

“We are seeing a tsunami of violence, self-harm, of suicides. What’s happening on Rikers Island is nothing less than a full scale humanitarian crisis,” said Council Member Caban.

 “How many more need to die before we say enough is enough?” Caban asked. “ Either you believe in saving lives or you don’t. Either you want to keep people safe or you don’t. Either you care about outcomes or you don’t. It’s as simple as that. We are never going to incarcerate our way to safety. Safety doesn’t come from warehousing human beings in overcrowded dangerous cages. Safety doesn’t come from blasting out e-mails or tweets after a tragedy happens, it doesn’t come from pointing fingers at every single institution and person but yourself…”

“This is not a pathway to public safety, not for incarcerated people,” Caban added. “Not for any worker on the island, not for neighborhoods across the city.”

The rally came on the last day of Black History Month, where 90% of people held in the City’s jails are Black and Latinx.