Rikers Island Conditions Receive Renewed Criticism as NY Governor Signs Less Is More Act, Releases 191 Inmates

Criticism regarding the conditions facing inmates at the Rikers Island prison complex has persisted for years but worsened during the pandemic.


Image via Getty/Erik McGregor/LightRocket


While the notorious Rikers Island jail complex in New York is set to be closed by 2027, the conditions in the meantime are receiving revived criticism from a number of lawmakers.

New York State Assembly Member Jessica González-Rojas, who recently toured the facilities, told CBS News she saw garbage spread across the floor, as well as roaches and “rotting food.” Inmates, she added, had limited access to showers and clothes. González-Rojas also she was a witness to an attempted suicide at the facility.

Referring to the current situation as a “public health issue,” González-Rojas also noted how the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has worsened problems that have persisted at the jail complex for many years. The problem, she said, can be succinctly described as one of “mass incarceration” and not understaffing.

Other lawmakers and decarceration advocates have also recently spoken up about Rikers, including Mary Lynne Werlwas—director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society. In a quote included in an Associated Press report on Rikers shared earlier this week, Werlwas said right now is “one of the most dangerous times” in their 50-year history of monitoring jails.

This year alone, per stats cited by the New York Times, 10 Rikers inmates have died. At least five of those inmates died by suicide.

Friday, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed the Less Is More law, which will take effect in March. The law—per NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio—allows for local government to push forward on the goal of closing Rikers.

“Less Is More isn’t in full effect until March, but there are decarceration actions being made right now,” de Blasio said. “Hundreds of eligible people are being released from Rikers under Less Is More. I applaud the State for allowing this to happen immediately.”

Friday, Gov. Hochul said she’s “directing the board of parole to immediately release 191 people who qualify from Rikers Island,” with immediately meaning today.

More generally, the law is said to allow people to avoid serving time for most nonviolent parole violations. It should also result in the eventual release of “thousands” of New Yorkers who are currently locked up under the guise of technical parole violations.

In a statement Friday, NYC Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams called the governor’s move of enacting the Less Is More act “an important component” of a larger decarceration strategy.

“This is an important component of the decarceration strategy that is critical to alleviating the crisis conditions on Rikers, but it is only one step of the many that must be taken, and the pace of action is far too slow for the immediacy of this human rights disaster,” Williams said. “We need the city to grant low-level offenders supervised release, and early and compassionate release options should be exercised. Prosecutors and judges must quickly prioritize alternatives to incarceration, and staff must return to work with their safety as a priority. I ask again that the Mayor and Governor see this emergency in person, so that they can understand the urgency and scope of the disaster relief that is needed for those who are incarcerated or working on Rikers Island.”

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