News & Politics

De Blasio Visits 'Humanitarian Disaster' Rikers Island for First Time in Four Years

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Eleven people who have been held in custody at the Rikers Island prison facility have died just this past year. There have been reports of prisoners being denied food and medical care because of a lack of staffing. The facility is dangerous to inmates and corrections officers alike, but New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had never visited Rikers in four years.

That changed after three Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform called on Mr. de Blasio to brief Congress on what they called “unacceptable conditions” on Rikers Island. Just hours later, the mayor toddled off to Rikers. Why he did so was not made very clear. But in a news conference after his stage-managed tour, he said more work needed to be done to improve conditions.

Benny Boscio Jr., the president of a union that represents correction officers, spoke to reporters immediately after the mayor’s news conference and accused the Department of Corrections of sprucing up some parts of the jail for the mayor’s visit, a charge denied by the department. Also, the union representing correction officers called de Blasio’s visit “a DOC infomercial.”

If de Blasio was hoping to allay the fears of politicians about conditions at the jail, he failed miserably. Prison bureaucrats keep saying they can handle the problems at Rikers, but outside experts are not convinced. The three congresspeople who visited the facility called the situation on the island “an absolute disgrace.”

“The Oversight Committee is calling for an urgent briefing on the actions the City of New York is taking to address these deplorable conditions,” Rep.Carolyn B. Maloney said in a letter.

The letter also called on the mayor to release low-level offenders into supervised programs in order to address overcrowding at the jail complex, which is under the control of New York City officials and where about 5,000 people were being held as of Monday morning. The complex’s maximum capacity is 7,308, according to the Department of Correction, but the staffing crisis has left it struggling to contend with jails that are more crowded now than they were at the height of the pandemic last year.

The Rikers issue has become a campaign issue despite the fact that de Blasio isn’t running. There have been calls for federal intervention to deal with the conditions at the jail.

The crisis at Rikers has heightened in the final months of Mr. de Blasio’s tenure and as the city gears up for the Nov. 2 general election to replace him.

His likely successor, the Democratic candidate Eric Adams, visited the island earlier this month. Afterward, Mr. Adams, who supports closing Rikers but has objected to the locations chosen for new jail sites, released a plan that included efforts to build facilities for incarcerated people with mental health or substance abuse issues, and to direct more funding to the prosecutor’s office located on the island.

Adams, a former cop who supports more funding for police and prosecutors, is on the right track with his proposal to build facilities for incarcerated people with mental health or substance abuse issues. But that’s a state funding issue and it’s not likely that anything would pass the legislature for the time being.

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