Incarcerated individuals on Rikers Island have staged a hunger strike in Rikers Island over abhorrent living conditions.
According to Christopher Boyle, an attorney who also serves as director of data research and policy for the New York County Defenders Service, those imprisoned within the Robert N. Davoren Complex (RNDC) on the island have stopped consuming food in protest of what is reported to be hellish and inhumane conditions.
Boyle first learned of the hunger strike while visiting a client on Rikers Island on Jan. 10 for another matter when his office received an email with two voicemails from incarcerated individuals detailing the deplorable conditions and their hunger strike effort.
“So, the voicemail basically was leaving a message that alluded to the fact that there was a hunger strike going on because of conditions that have deteriorated so badly at Rikers, at least in their area of Rikers, which is RNDC. That led them to think that there wasn’t anything more they could do, and they were trying to do this, what they referred to as a non-violent hunger strike protest to get some attention,” Boyle told amNewYork Metro.
Boyle explained that he sat down with one of the hunger strikers on Jan. 10, who confirmed that the hunger strike included four dormitories containing about 50 people each — about 200 participating in total. The strikers ate their last meal on the night of Jan. 7, and as of late Jan. 10, have missed their 12th scheduled meal.
“They said they have gotten to the point now where officers were coming in without food and then asking them: ‘Do you want us to bring the food?’ And they were saying, ‘No,’ and then the officer would leave. So, my understanding is, you know, they have their general grievances that have been going on for months, which is there’s no staff around,” Boyle said.
The Department of Corrections, however, denies that there such hunger strike is taking place within the facility, but that the participants are refusing to eat institutional food.
“There is no hunger strike. A group of detainees were refusing institutional food and instead eating commissary food. 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, a DOC spokesperson said in a statement.”
DOC also boasts a robust and efficient grievance system, which those in custody can contact (via free 311 calls) at any time during lock out to express their concerns. All facility based grievances are sent directly to the warden’s office for an investigation. According to preliminary grievance data, DOC also say they already aware of these concerns and are addressing them through the system designed for that purpose.
Voices of the imprisoned
The DOC statement contradicts voicemails obtained by amNewYork Metro in which prisoners on the island state that they have now missed over 12 meals. Boyle says he has received about 14 messages regarding the hunger strike, and adds that in his 30-year tenure the conditions on Rikers Island are the worst he has ever seen it.
Boyle explained that the RNDC complex contains about 50 beds per dormitory put together in a metal-like facility, which he compared to a metallic ship container, with no insulation. He adds, when temperatures drop prisoners are stuck in the cold.
“So, there’s nobody on the floor of the dormitories to basically settle disputes or be in the way when there is fighting. There’s only one person in the bubble, the bubble is the area where they open and close doors, but apparently in this, this facility is a little different than some of the other facilities you might be familiar with, in the sense that there are no individual jail cells,” Boyle said.
The freezing temperatures inside of Rikers Island, the lack of mail, no personal visits from any family members, not being produced in court, and being denied video conferences with attorneys are just a handful of the injustices shared with Boyle.
In an obtained voicemail, an incarcerated individual shared that his dormitory has been on lockdown 24 hours, seven days a week for the past 15 days for what is an apparent COVID-19 positivity case; however, CDC guidelines have reduced this quarantine time to five days for those who are not symptomatic. In addition, meals are being delivered directly to their dormitory as the detainees have not been given access to a common eating area.
“We are a concerned group of residents at the Rikers Facility, particularly the RNDC building, as we speak we just wanted to let you know as of Friday, midnight Jan. 7, we decided to go on a DOC meal hunger strike, non-violently and the reason for this is due to the lack of our needs being met,” an incarcerated individual said over a voicemail to Boyle at the New York County Defenders Service.
The individual begins to list several complaints starting with a lack of timely medical treatment, no access to the law library services (which he says hinders their due process,) there are limited to no items in the commissary, mail is either lost or severely delayed, court days are continuously adjourned, and that they are overall unable to receive any sort of communication in a timely fashion leaving incarcerated individuals in “limbo.”
“So, as you can see, the city is still open for business, but Rikers Island is closed. We are not getting visits, whether it’s regular visits or lawyers visits, which continue to hinder our due process as well,” the individual stated.
‘That’s all we ask for is just a little help’
Another voicemail was sent by Ervin Bowins, who is also incarcerated on Rikers Island, and pleaded with Boyle to get the word to the media and mayor’s office demanding humane conditions.
“We are on hunger strike, and we have a list of reasonable things we would like to bring to the table so that we can get things rolling, such as a law library, recreation, and mental health service, and medical stuff like that. What we are not being afforded. Mandatory, minimum standards for a human being,” Bowins said, “That’s all we ask for is just a little help.”
The environment within the facility has long been criticized by elected officials throughout the five boroughs, especially after they visited in September, but now the island has deteriorated to such a point those serving time are refusing to eat until the issues are addressed.
Boyle also expressed that he is concerned those within the jail are garnering backlash from staff for the hunger strike and even said he received allegations that his phone number was being blocked from within the jail.
“I started getting phone calls from family members, saying that my phone was being considered restricted,” Boyle said.
Advocacy groups say they stand in solidarity with those on Rikers Island, as well as the crisis that has seen at least 16 individuals who’ve died within city jails, Jerome Wright, Statewide Organizer of the #HALTsolitary Campaign and member of the Jails Action Coalition, released the following statement:
“We are in solidarity with the brave people incarcerated on Rikers Island who had to resort to a hunger strike to protest the deplorable and deadly conditions they are facing, especially as COVID rates skyrocket. New York City officials need to act NOW to decarcerate, end solitary confinement, and ensure people have access to medical care and other basic needs.”