Prisoners at Rikers Island are protesting unsafe conditions and lack or adequate healthcare especially during the pandemic. Too many have died in custody as violence and lack of services persist.

By Matt Katz, Gothamist

Incarcerated men living in a jail facility on Rikers Island say they are on hunger strike, protesting conditions such as lack of medical care and access to other services that have persisted since last year due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of staffing at city jails.

While the Department of Correction pushed back on the severity of the strike, now in its fifth day, over the past year more than a dozen inmates have died in custody, violence has increased and backlogs in the courts due to the pandemic have kept people behind bars for longer periods.

rikers island sign
Photo by Matt Green

Detainee Ervin Bowins reported that his unit has been denied access to mail and packages, recreation, mental and medical services, and the law library to work on their cases. In a voicemail Bowins left with an attorney, he said these are “mandatory minimum standards for a human being.”

The attorney, Christopher Boyle of the New York County Defender Services, estimated about 200 people at the Robert N. Davoren Center on Rikers Island have not taken meals since Friday at midnight. He said staffing shortages mean fewer services, and the unit where they’re housed is particularly cold during this week.

“Everything is limited to a degree that’s never been seen before,” Boyle said. “And they’ve had enough. They’ve finally said this is what we’re going to do to get some attention.”

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