Rikers Island, one of America's most notorious jails, is now one of its deadliest

At least 12 people have died this year inside of New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail complex, raising concerns about the safety and oversight of the prisoners. Two additional inmates have died following compassionate releases, according to officials, making this the deadliest year in the city’s jail system since 2016.

Esias Johnson, 24, was found dead in September of an apparent drug overdose after telling his family he saw no way out of Rikers, local media reported. Johnson’s parents told the Daily News that correction officials failed to take their son to any of his three court appearances, preventing payment of his $1 bail.

The mother of Rikers inmate Brandon Rodriguez, 25, said she learned of her son’s suicide in August through Facebook. “I didn’t know he was in jail,” his mother, Tamara Carter, told the City, a nonprofit news outlet. “I found out through Facebook of his death.”

Fourteen local lawmakers who visited the jail complex in September said they were shocked by the conditions there and even observed an inmate’s suicide attempt. The lawmakers described seeing shower stalls being used as jail cells, fecal matter and urine lining the floors, and dead cockroaches next to spoiled food in the jail’s hallways, leading them to characterize the situation at Rikers as a “humanitarian crisis.”

The Department of Correction acknowledges the mounting issues inside of Rikers and insists it is taking measures to increase jail safety. Eight correction officers and four captains have been disciplined for failing to properly do their jobs in relation to the dozen deaths, according to the New York Times.

“Any death in custody is one death too many and we are deeply concerned about these tragic losses, which have taken place during an unprecedented staffing crisis,” Latima Johnson, spokesperson for the department, told Yahoo News. “We’ve taken aggressive measures to end the crisis, and they are beginning to work. ... We expect and demand further improvement in the weeks to come.”

Rikers Island, a 413-acre island in the East River between Queens and the Bronx, houses an estimated 6,000 inmates, the majority of which are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime. Many of them suffer from mental illness and have been jailed for nonviolent offenses. The complex, which is New York City’s main jail, also employs thousands of correction officers.

Mayor Bill de Blasio blames Rikers’s worsening issues on an increase in correction officer absenteeism and backlogged courts, but critics also say de Blasio turns his back on the issue despite promising to close the troubled jail. In August, Gothamist reported, the daily number of correction officers calling in sick was 1,416, nearly double the number that called in sick that same month the previous year.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio stands at a podium as he speaks.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks during his executive budget presentation, May 7, 2015, in New York City. (Julie Jacobson-Pool/Getty Images)

In late September, de Blasio visited Rikers for the first time in four years and left “upset” by what he saw. He highlighted the need for a faster intake process to reduce the jail’s population and a greater investment in health services as priorities, which had been laid out in a five-point plan he released two weeks prior aimed at addressing the challenges on Rikers.

Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association president Benny Boscio Jr., a frequent critic of the mayor, said the plan fell far too short for any meaningful change. In September, Boscio called the situation at Rikers a “sinking ship” due to misalignment with city leadership.

“We’re all for reform, but reform can’t be one-sided,” he said in an interview with PIX11 News.

Around the country, the number of deaths inside of jails continues to climb as jail populations swell. The Bureau of Justice Statistics recently released a comprehensive report on mortality data for local jails in 2018. There were 1,120 deaths reported nationwide that year, or 154 deaths per 100,000 people in jail. At its current pace, Rikers easily surpasses the death rate of the average jail.

“These preventable deaths are the tragic result of healthcare and jail systems that fail to address serious health problems among the jail population — both inside and out of the jail setting — and of the trauma of incarceration itself,” the Prison Policy Initiative, a think tank on criminal justice, noted of deaths in local jails across the country.

A sign says Rikers Island, with buildings of the Rikers Correctional Center in the background and the East River in the foreground, in New York City.
A sign marks the location of the Rikers Correctional Center in the East River on March 9, 2021 in New York City. (Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

Of the 14 deaths reported in the New York City jail system this year, at least six were attributed to suicide, leading many city officials to push for increased public health resources. Nationally, nearly 30 percent of inmate deaths were due to suicide, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice. Studies show that people in jail are vastly more likely to have mental health issues than people in the general population. The shock of confinement in grim conditions can spark or exacerbate these issues.

And these types of deaths usually happen quickly after incarceration. About half of those who died by suicide had been in jail for nine days or less, compared to more than 17 days for other causes of death.

At Rikers, dysfunction appears to be the norm. Over the summer, a detainee hijacked a transportation bus and rammed it into a brick wall at the complex, according to a New York Times account. Another inmate stole a guard’s keys and slashed the guard across the face and neck. Four inmates just filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of all prisoners who had to deal with the jail’s “summer of hell” this year, when the coronavirus pandemic added to the complex’s many woes.

A distant view of the Rikers Island jail complex, with water in the foreground, on Rikers Island in the East River between Queens and the Bronx in New York City.
The Rikers Island jail complex is located on Rikers Island in the East River between Queens and the Bronx in New York City. (Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

City Council leaders in October 2019 approved a plan to close Rikers by 2026, which would replace the complex with much smaller jails meant to be more humane, but lawyers with clients on the island say the plan would do little to solve the systemic issues.

“You don’t close Rikers just to create another Rikers,” Olayemi Olurin, public defender at the Legal Aid Society, told Yahoo News. “It’s not like Rikers is the soil on the land that Rikers occupies. It’s the innate act of the prison system that was created and being maintained. Rikers didn’t just come out of nowhere, so if you go and remove Rikers, then it just creates more Rikers and puts more people in the jails. All of the same problems that exist in Rikers, you’re just putting them elsewhere.”

Mayor-elect Eric Adams, de Blasio’s successor, has called for a “balanced” approach to Rikers, saying that the prison should be closed but also emphasizing the conditions faced by prison guards and other staff.

“Everyone is talking about what is happening to the inmates,” Adams, a former New York police captain, told NY1. “But guess what? The correction officers didn’t do anything to end up in Rikers Island. They’re there to protect us.”

New York City Mayor-elect Eric Adams stands with his head bowed and his arms folded on a street corner in the city.
New York City Mayor-elect Eric Adams. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

But the future mayor acknowledges that change is needed, his spokesman Evan Thies told Yahoo News.

“Eric has been fighting for reforms to improve the horrific conditions at Rikers for years, including substance abuse and mental health services, as well as a move to community-based jails and the closure of Rikers,” Thies said. “[In September] he also called for significant new investments at the existing jail to protect both inmates and correctional officers.”

With nearly two months left in the calendar year, Rikers skeptics fear the complex will add more names of men and women to the list of those who have died in jail in ways that perhaps could have been prevented. For Olurin, the Legal Aid Society public defender, it’s most important for the public to understand that people in the jail deserve a fair opportunity to live.

“Anybody who gets arrested in New York, this is where they send you,” she said. “So it’s not this place for especially bad people. Any of us could end up there. ... So I think it’s really incumbent upon us to humanize people.”

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: David Howells/Corbis via Getty Images (2)