The New York Times reports that about 200 inmates on Rikers Island are refusing Department of Correction meals in protest of inhumane conditions. It’s a large and well organized protest that highlights just how bad things have gotten in the infamous complex, particularly in the wake of COVID-19. Protestors told the Times they haven’t been outside in several weeks, have been subjected to violence, dangerously low temperatures, bugs, mice and mold.
“It just gets worse and worse,” Nelson Pinero said. “I don’t wish this upon nobody.”
Louis Molina, the new Department of Correction Commissioner, has so far been unable to right the numerous inhumane conditions inmates and activists have been calling attention to for decades. While 5,400 people are currently being held at Rikers, the vast majority of them have not been tried or found guilty of any crime.
A Rikers spokesperson dismissed concerns, telling the Times that while the detainees were refusing the institution’s food, they were still eating food from the commissary. “The warden is engaged with them and addressing their concerns, and our employees have been working tirelessly to keep our facilities and all who work and live in them safe,” she said.
But the detainees the Times spoke with didn’t agree. “There’s no safety for us,” Richard Colon said. “There’s no one to help us. It’s scary in here.” Detainees spoke of being compelled to clean up blood and feces due to a correctional officer shortage that has left Rikers woefully understaffed. 2020 was the deadliest year for New York correctional facilities in years, and a rise in officer absenteeism is thought to be part of the problem. Earlier this week at a Board of Correction hearing, it was revealed that 2,300 of nearly 9,000 staff members was out sick. Rikers’ poor ventilation and close quarters make it a hotbed of COVID activity.
Christopher Boyle is a lawyer with the New York County Defender Services, and he’s representing some of the detainees protesting. “This is an emergency situation,” he told the Times.
In the New Testament, Jesus specifically identified himself with inmates, telling his disciples that when they went to visit people in prison, they were really visiting him. In the U.S., Christians have tackled industrial prison complex reform from several directions, from the late Chuck Colson’s political advocacy after his own time behind bars to Sister Helen Prejean’s death penalty abolition work.