On July 23, another man incarcerated at the Rikers Island jail complex died. Curtis Davis was at least the 26th person to die in the New York City jail system since Mayor Eric Adams took office last year.
Like Mr. Davis, most people caged at Rikers haven’t been convicted: They’re being held pretrial while considered innocent because, unlike those who have money, they can’t afford bail. And like Mr. Davis, most people detained at Rikers – 90% of them – are Black and Latino, though those groups represent only about half the city’s population. Racism is built into the system.
Curtis Davis was at least the fourth person to die in city jails this month. The true number of deaths at Rikers is unknown, because in May, the Department of Correction said they would stop publicly reporting deaths of incarcerated people. Rather than fix the problems plaguing the jails, Mayor Adams and his DOC commissioner have sought to hide them.
But there’s no hiding this catastrophe. Rikers has long been perilous for the people incarcerated or employed there. In 2015, a U.S. District Court appointed a federal monitor to report on conditions and any progress to improve them. But things have only gotten worse. In April, federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York addressed the jails’ “violence and disorder” and warned: “Incarcerated people and corrections staff continue to face an imminent risk of harm on a daily basis.”
Members of our organization, the Katal Center, have been incarcerated or have had family members detained at Rikers. They know all too well the horrors there, which is why we’ve worked for years with other grassroots groups and advocates to shut it down. As conditions have deteriorated under Mayor Adams, calls have grown for the federal courts to appoint an independent nonpartisan receiver to take over at Rikers. A receiver won’t be a panacea, but that person can help improve conditions and save lives. The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, community and advocacy groups, and a growing list of former and government officials want a federal receiver. Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and 12 city council members have cosponsored a related resolution.
In 2017, then Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council finally agreed with community demands to shut down Rikers. In 2019, the city adopted a closure plan which requires a reduction in the city jail population. Despite pledging his support when he campaigned, Adams worked to roll back bail reform, which has contributed to an increase in the jail population, and he has pushed back on the 2019 plan. He must not be allowed to reverse the city’s commitment to close Rikers by 2027. The law requires it.
Until Rikers is shuttered, the federal courts must appoint a receiver. The next hearing is on August 10 in Manhattan. Katal and our allies will be there to demand action from the federal courts – and to insist that Rikers be shut down for good.
The writer of this opinion piece, gabriel sayegh, is the co–executive director of the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice, a community organization with members who have been impacted by Rikers and mass incarceration.