15 Rikers Island prisoners died in 2021. All were Black and brown.

The prison complex has endured the same staffing shortages and poor living conditions of others during the COVID-19 pandemic.

New York City’s infamous Rikers Island jail complex, like many others across the country, has had to endure myriad complications during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fifteen Rikers Island inmates lost their lives this year, all men of color, several of whom likely died for reasons directly or indirectly connected to the pandemic. New York Magazine’s Intelligencer profiled each of the men, who died from causes ranging from suicide that might have been avoided with adequate staffing to drug overdoses that occurred as a result of lack of oversight.  

Ninety percent of Rikers’ population is Black and brown, and many incarcerated there are awaiting trial for petty misdemeanors. Corrections officer Timothy Hodges testified in March to Rikers’ Board of Correction that the prison was “facing a personnel crisis and could not provide a basic standard of care,” Intelligencer wrote.

“We’re trying to point out to upper management and to additional people like you that we’re doing our best and we’re trying to make this work,” Hodges said.

Northeast U.S. Digs Out After  "Bomb Cyclone" Snowstorm
Rikers Island jail complex stands under a blanket of snow on Jan. 5, 2018 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

The story unearthed a litany of problems with the facility that include locking down Rikers’ largest jail, the Anna M. Kross Center, because of too many unmanned posts and the resignation of New York City Department of Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann in May.

“Men were sleeping on the floor of intake cells and defecating in plastic bags. Violence was rife, inflicted by inmates and guards alike. Emergency ‘probe teams,’ with officers dressed in riot gear and wielding batons and pepper spray, regularly burst in to suppress disturbances. Banging their heads against walls, slashing their wrists, attempting suicide — detainees were harming themselves at the highest rate in 5 years,” the Intelligencer wrote.

The union for corrections officers sued the City of New York over working conditions at Rikers, and more than 1,000 officers have resigned in the last two years.

Governor Kathy Hochul signed the Less is More Act, which authorized the release of nearly 200 detainees with parole violations from Rikers and prevents parolee incarceration from technical violations. On Jan. 1, New York’s incumbent mayor Eric Adams will take on the problems with Rikers, which he has called a “national embarrassment.”

Adams intends to close Rikers by 2027 and replace it with smaller jails spread throughout the boroughs.

Of course, Adams is also coming in office as the omicron variant ramps up.

“After hovering around 1% for months, the COVID-positivity rate among detainees shot up to 17% on December 21. That means an end to in-person visits, curtailed programming, and, likely, more staffing shortages. Things will get worse before they get better,” the Intelligencer wrote.

Prison and jails across the country share many of the issues plaguing Rikers Island; The New York Times reported last week that the Justice Department will now “allow certain federal inmates to remain on home confinement when the government declares an end to the COVID emergency, reversing a Trump-era legal opinion that said the Bureau of Prisons would have to recall them to federal facilities.”

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