Civil Liberties

Crisis at Rikers Island

In 2021, the institutional rot and dysfunction at Rikers Island cascaded into a full-blown catastrophe.


Rikers Island, the infamous jail complex where New York City has incarcerated people since 1932, has always been a problem. But in 2021, the institutional rot and dysfunction cascaded into a full-blown catastrophe.

As of October, 12 inmates had died at Rikers in 2021, five in suspected suicides. That's the most since 2005. A New York state senator said lawmakers touring Rikers in September saw a man trying to kill himself. A public defender who toured the jail told The Intercept that inmates in one segregated intake unit were locked in small showers and given plastic bags to defecate into.

Meanwhile, widespread and unauthorized staff absences have left the jail dangerously shorthanded. In a September letter to the New York City Council, Rikers' chief medical officer warned that "in 2021 we have witnessed a collapse in basic jail operations, such that today I do not believe the City is capable of safely managing the custody of those it is charged with incarcerating in its jails."

In a September court hearing before a U.S. District Court judge, a federal monitor revealed widespread security lapses, failures to help inmates who were trying to commit suicide in plain view of officers, and a small guard rotation working double and triple shifts. Meanwhile, use of force by officers, inmate-on-inmate violence, and inmate-on-guard assaults have all increased.

"This state of seriously compromised safety has spiraled to a point at which, on a daily basis, there is a manifest risk of serious harm to both detainees and staff, which in turn, generates high levels of fear among both groups with each accusing the other of exacerbating already challenging conditions," the monitor wrote in an August 24 letter to U.S. District Judge Laura T. Swain. "Turmoil is the inevitable outcome of such a volatile state of affairs."

After touring the jail himself, outgoing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said, "The whole thing upsets me." But Hizzoner had no intention of actually taking on the forces that have made Rikers a hellhole for decades.

New York City has a tentative plan to permanently close Rikers in 2027. But the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment extends to providing incarcerated people with food, shelter, hygiene, and medical care. If New York City cannot force Rikers to meet this low bar of basic human decency and maintain that standard until the planned closing date, the jail should not stay open a day longer.