200 Rikers Island inmates continue on hunger strike: “Omicron variant punishes them even more”

The omicron variant of COVID-19 adds more ‘fire’ to the already volatile prison situation from Rikers Island. This Thursday, human rights defenders and elected leaders confirmed that since last Friday night, 200 inmates started a hunger strike to press for the lack of health care and services in general, while the pandemic makes havoc in that prison.

“The hunger strike taking place at the Robert N. Davoren Center (RNDC), one of eight units on Rikers Island, is another example of why the humanitarian crisis must be addressed immediately”, cried Joanne Page, director of The Fortune Society on the outskirts of the penal center located in Queens.

It was found that in four bedrooms with some 50 people each, the inmates have refused to eat since last January 7th.

In addition, all the complaints indicate that access to basic services is very limited, because at least 30% of prison workers from different units, until this Tuesday They had called in sick.

According to the description of the activists, other strikers they complained about the cold inside the bedrooms from jail when temperatures dipped below freezing this week.

Spokespersons for organizations and other initiatives to support the prison population assure that more than 370 detainees have tested positive recently from the virus. And less than half of those incarcerated are fully vaccinated.

“Rikers has never been worse before. We cannot describe what happens here with the cold, the pandemic and the lack of peoplel”, recounted Sharon Ferrer of the community defense and integration organization Exodus.

Advocates also report that the pandemic has forced “prolonged isolation” to hundreds of groups of prisoners, who for days, have not been able to count on recreational activities, or access to the library.

It’s a big torture room where for many weeks entire units are denied everything. Until you go out to breathe, ”said the Salvadoran Mariela Ceballos, outside the largest prison in New York, while waiting for any news of his inner son for three months.

Leaders of prison population defense coalitions clamored in front of the ‘Rikers’ entrance for emergency measures, especially more medical attention. (Photo: F. Martínez)

The City: “There is no strike”

But for the purposes of the Department of Correction (DOC), in practice there is no “hunger strike”, and its effects are being exaggerated, since the “protestants” have access to buy products in the commissary.

“A group of detainees refuse to receive food from the institution. We are committed to them and their concerns. The City is addressing this crisis. Our employees have been working tirelessly to keep our facilities and everyone who works and lives in them safe.” Jason Kersten, in an interview with The New York Times.

Contrary to this official version of the protest inside the prison, Christopher Boyle, director of data and policy research for the Ombudsman Service He assured that denying the action of the inmates is a “pretty bad argument.”

“They’re basically saying the hunger strike isn’t going on, and they’re refusing all this food, but they’re getting the commissary fries, to sustain themselves for this entire period of time,” Boyle said.

The activist stressed that the list of complaints is joined by the fact that the prison commissary is “out of supplies.”

For their part, community leaders reiterate that given the loss of personnel at Rikers, in recent days the inmates are experiencing “their worst moments” because they do not have minimum services, contact with their defense attorneys, family visits and access to their mail.

The most “desperate and unfair”, argue the activists, is that the pandemic wave that the Big Apple is suffering has caused further delays in the presentation of detainees and those prosecuted in criminal courts, which are also experiencing a personnel crisis that “condemns” hundreds of people to be behind bars, without even having a final conviction.

Councilwoman Carmen de La Rosa demands that the Municipal Administration contain the humanitarian crisis that further encouraged the omicron variant. (Photo: F. Martínez)

“This hell has to stop”

Among the elected leaders who loudly expressed their support for the strikers and requested that an emergency plan be lightened, was the manhattan alderman, Carmen de la Rosa, who stated that in the “supposedly most progressive and richest city in the country” there are schemes that violate minimum human rights.

“We understand that there is a new administration in the city that barely has days. But there are steps that can be taken now, such as guaranteeing more staff. The new Mayor must speed up basic services in this penal center,” said the Dominican politician.

In this sense, Councilwoman De La Rosa stressed that in alliance with a group of colleagues from the Municipal Council, she will fight for Mayor Eric Adams to reflect on the application of solitary confinement. It is a disciplinary practice whose total elimination has become a “point of honor” for the defenders of the prison population.

“This new Council will confront this practice of torture and to ensure that inmates have access to medical services in this pandemic crisis. We have heard testimonies of people who are sick with COVID-19 and their family has not heard from them for weeks. This hell has to stop”, De La Rosa concluded.

At the other end of this controversy, correctional officers also have a clear position.

“We have to have a mechanism to be able to segregate inmates who are violent with prison officers and with non-violent inmates. When will lawmakers realize correctional officers need protection? The reforms cannot be unilateral”, he has repeatedly stated in recent weeks Benny Boscio, President of the Correctional Officers Benevolent Association.

The union leader argues that officers should use solitary confinement to punish unruly detainees, otherwise, your team will be increasingly at risk.

“What should happen to inmates who attack correctional officers for no reason? This is our reality every day,” he shared on his Twitter account.

Since September 2021, when a State Assembly commission inspected the conditions denounced by activists and defenders in Rikers, which they described as “hellish”, a series of measures have been addressed by both the Governor’s Office and the Mayor’s Office, but the fury of the omicron variant again puts the public eye to this prison compound, with a population of more than 5,400 inmates in preventive detention.

!Close this prison now!

The debate about Rikers Island closure and demolition project It also intensified in the heat of the protest held this Thursday at the sign that identifies this prison in the Hazen Street and 19th Avenue in Queens.

“We are calling on those in leadership in the mayor’s office and those with the ability to influence change to demand strong and sweeping action now. Today it is a place of inhumanity and a place where trauma and pain reside, which should be closed now,” he said. Andrew WardAssociate Vice President of the Center David Rothenberg for Public Policy at the Fortune Society.

Elected officials who have visited the jail are also asking the mayor to take action, even going so far as to formally request that the facility should be shut down immediately.

“We must end the practice of solitary confinement. it is torture. It has devastated many, especially our LGBT+ communities. We must close Rikers Island now! Shut it down!” he demanded. Councilor Shekar Krishnan.

The closure of this penitentiary center, whose project was approved by the Municipal Council, is scheduled for the year 2026.

The activist Ruben Medina, after being behind bars for 16 years, cries out for “relief” to the population deprived of liberty, especially the youngest. (Photo: F. Martínez)

An activist speaks: “They treat them like animals”

The activist of Puerto Rican origin, Ruben Medina, 34 years old, spent 16 years in prison in the New York prison system, managed to change his life and today works for the Exodus organization, with the mission of reintegrate the newly released into their communities.

“Whoever speaks to them knows perfectly well what happens in there. Nobody told me. And I must tell the authorities to understand that when a person who made a mistake is subjected to all these calamities, they are building a much worse person, which will one day return to the communities”, commented the resident of The Bronx.

Ruben, after spending almost half his life behind bars, and suffering the weight of disciplinary measures, such as solitary confinement, draws the attention of the traumatic effects that these measures cause in the youngest.

“What we know is that those who are on hunger strike, inside there today, They are little kids (young people) who practically start their life. And unfortunately they made a mistake. But this system that treats them like animals, it will turn them into something worse.”

The Exodus counselor, who also joined the request to improve the conditions of the inmates, further punished by the COVID-19 outbreak, reasons that it is not only a Human Right, but a matter of “logic” .

“I was in prison. I accepted my crime. I lived what isolation means. Spending days in a tiny room, with bars, without talking to anyone, listening only to screams. I was punished for headstrong, for doing stupid things. I still live with that trauma. Today, thank God, I am a new person, rehabilitated, who is at the service of others. The idea is that those who leave prison don’t come out turned into criminals, for having made a youthful mistake”, he concluded.

Violence and blood in NYC jails:

  • 10 prison facilities administers New York City, eight of which are located on Rikers Island, plus two prison wards at Bellevue and Elmhurst hospitals.
  • 16 people have died in New York City jails, including five who have committed suicide in the last 13 months.
  • 3 times higher is the use of force in these penal centers since an independent monitor annually reports the violence.
  • 38 incidents involving serious injuries between January and June 2016 compared to 239 in the same period in 2021.
  • 23% of the New York prison population is of Hispanic origin according to the trends of the last 5 years.