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Chaos At NYC's Rikers Island Sparks Calls For Reforms

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We turn now to New York City and Rikers Island. It's one of the largest jails in the country, and it's facing a crisis. Eleven inmates have died at the facility just this year. Several of those deaths are suicides. They come as widespread reports have leaked, describing hunger, lack of medical attention and violence. New York Attorney General Letitia James visited Rikers Island today and says it's clear that things have reached, quote, "a breaking point."

NPR's Jasmine Garsd is based in New York City. She joins us now. And Jasmine, I want to start with what you've learned about the situation on the ground now because Rikers has been a troubled place for decades.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Yeah, absolutely. There are a lot of issues here. To begin with, Rikers is overcrowded, which has led to a rise in COVID cases. Also, guards are not showing up. In August alone, officers have failed to show up 2,700 times. And part of that is they say they are understaffed, so the shifts have become more dangerous. All this has led to reports of gangs taking over and people not getting timely access to food, water or medicine.

CORNISH: I understand you've actually been able to speak to some detainees. What have you learned?

GARSD: Yes. One man, James (ph) - he asked that we withhold his last name because he fears retaliation - told me this.

JAMES: We have no CO on our floor. Inmates are running the house. People are getting beat up. Iffy control of the house - post three and two other guys (ph).

GARSD: He says five, six days have gone by without a corrections officer in sight on his floor, which has around 20 men. So now, it's just run by gangs. And he says he was assaulted recently. Now, to be clear, James is there awaiting trial.

CORNISH: And that might be a surprise to some people - right? - that there are people there who are just waiting for trial, not convicted, that many people at Rikers haven't even been tried yet.

GARSD: Yes. There are close to 6,000 people at Rikers. Over 5,300 are awaiting trial. Part of what's going on there is just massive delays in the criminal justice system because of the pandemic.

But what I want to point out is that over 100 people at Rikers right now are on technical parole violation, which means they violated parole, but it wasn't a criminal action. Like, they missed a meeting with a parole officer. And up until recently, that could get you sent to Rikers, which just changed a few days ago when Governor Kathy Hochul said people wouldn't have to go back into the system for a minor violation.

CORNISH: We mentioned New York's A.G. doing a tour there. What are they saying? What's the official response to the crisis?

GARSD: New York City is now suing a union representing jail officers, saying this mass absenteeism is - it basically amounts to an illegal strike, which has endangered everyone at Rikers. Beyond that, there have been calls for federal intervention, sending the National Guard in, but there's no timeline for any of this.

And then there's always talk of dismantling Rikers, which would imply building alternate facilities throughout the city. And that's gotten plenty of pushback. Earlier today, I spoke to Vincent Schiraldi, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction, who said this.

VINCENT SCHIRALDI: We need to close this place. I think it's much, much better to have it in the communities. Volunteers can come. Your family can visit easily.

GARSD: Basically, he's saying let's get rid of this out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality that Rikers represents. Rikers exists, and the people I've spoken to describe it as a very real nightmare.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Jasmine Garsd.

Thank you for staying with this story.

GARSD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.