Rikers wrath: Families, advocates demand mayor immediately reduce prison population

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Families call for decarceration after another person is found dead in Rikers Island.
Photo by Dean Moses

Rikers Island has become a death sentence rather than a detention facility, criminal justice advocates charged Tuesday.

Over the course of nine months, five individuals have died while in the custody of Rikers Island. Activists and families of the dead prisoners are left to wonder what’s happening on the penal island to cause so many custodial deaths?

The most recent death happened on Aug. 30, when Segundo Guallpa, an incarcerated individual serving time inside the controversial jail complex, apparently took his own life. Guallpa is the second inmate to die this month following the suicide of Brandon Rodriguez on Aug. 10.

These deaths come in conjunction with the hospitalization of a correctional officer who received a skull fracture on Monday, and many New Yorkers are wondering what grim circumstances are leading to these severe acts of violence and morbid ends.

Advocates called for the closure of Rikers Island. Photo by Dean Moses
Those at the rally said that Rikers Island is a death sentence in itself. Photo by Dean Moses

Calling an emergency rally to address the state of affairs on Rikers Island, advocacy groups #HaltSolitary and the New York City Jails Action Coalition joined those previously incarcerated and human rights supporters outside City Hall on Broadway and Murray Street on Tuesday morning.

Draping a tapestry inscribed with the names of those who have perished while behind bars, protesters heard from attorney William Wagstaff, representing the family of Rodriguez, who spoke on their behalf.

The emergency rally took place outside of City Hall. Photo by Dean Moses

“Brandon’s mother wants everyone to know they took her baby. She will never hear him sing again, never have a son call her incessantly saying: Mom, mom, mom. Siblings no longer have their brother. And their hearts are broken as the families are of all of those who have loved someone on Rikers Island. How is this facility still open? I ask again, how is this facility still open?” Wagstaff said.

Addressing Mayor Bill de Blasio, families and the formerly incarcerated demanded the release of inmates who have been waiting for delayed court hearings due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Melania Brown — sister of Layleen Polanco who died on Rikers Island while in solitary confinement — feels as though she relives that death every time another prisoner dies. 

Brandon Rodriguez’s family attorney, William Wagstaff. Photo by Dean Moses

“The mayor promised real change. Yet, he’s doing nothing, and more and more families are having to suffer the pain and torment our family continues to experience. Since the City can’t even keep people alive or provide the most basic human necessities, the mayor judges and the district attorney, have a moral obligation to immediately release everyone in the city jail and not send, not one more human, one more person to face the threat of another. I come here, I pour my heart out, the mayor made a promise, and no he had no intent of keeping that promise. All he did was change the name,” Brown said, in regard to the continuation of solitary confinement under the guise of a new alternative disciplinary model, Risk Management Accountability System (RMAS).

Melania Brown sister of Layleen Polanco who perished on Rikers Island while in solitary confinement. Photo by Dean Moses

According to the Department of Corrections’ reports, in July, approximately 989 pretrial detainees were in custody for more than 600 days. Advocates say that an immediate reduction in the prison population is needed since they claim 93% of those on Rikers Island are awaiting trial or parole hearings. Outraged at so many deaths, those at the rally urged the mayor to stop filibustering and to immediately step in to correct the situation or be on the wrong side of history.

“Mayor de Blasio, you have failed our communities! Let me say that again, you have failed our communities! You will go down in history as a mayor who invoked the names of our deceased loved ones for political gain,” Johnny Perez said, a member of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

“No more deaths,” protesters cried out. Photo by Dean Moses
“No more deaths,” protesters cried out. Photo by Dean Moses