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State assembly dissects Rikers in questioning; inmate families speak

“I’m just hearing a bunch of excuses.” 

That’s what former City Council Member Ruben Wills had to say during a hearing Oct. 1 in New York City where state assembly members picked apart the Rikers Island situation for information and solutions.

Willis has been to Rikers for a conviction which was later overturned. During his testimony he pointed fingers at Mayor Bill de Blasio, saying “It shouldn’t take 10 years to close Rikers.” De Blasio has wanted to close the jail since he became mayor, but hasn’t had success. 

Though the mayor has cracked down on the corrections officers who allegedly call in sick too often to address the situation, he has made no concrete moves to close down the jail—only to support the governor’s decarceration efforts so that the island isn’t packed with inmates.

At the assembly’s hearing, First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan appeared representing the administration  and focused on all of the improvements the city has tried to make at the site. 

Because of Governor Kathy Hochul’s Less is More initiative, the city was able to immediately release 165 inmates. There are 400 fewer people on Rikers than there were on Sept. 13, he said during the testimony. In 2021 more than ten detainees have died, and five are confirmed suicides. 

“We acknowledge the immense challenges ahead, but cannot lose sight of our other priority which the mayor reiterated after his visit: Closing Rikers Island, and creating a correctional system that is fundamentally smaller, safer and fair,” Fuleihan said.  

The deputy mayor toed de Blasio’s often-repeated line that, had the courts been working fully, had all correctional officers shown up to work, had COVID-19 not put many initiatives on hold, they would be on track for a safer and smooth-running jail. 

“We need more help. We need your help to get the court system to actually be functioning,” the deputy mayor said.

While discussions happen, families of the incarcerated are worried about their health after it’s been confirmed that several suicides have happened this year. 

Melania Brown, the older sister of  Layleen Polanco, 27,  suffered an immense grief when they found that there were ways to prevent the 27-year-old’s death at Rikers in 2019. Brown spoke of the life-saving health care that she believes officers should have given Polanco to help her during the seizure that killed her. 

“People are being locked in solitary confinement in showers amidst their own feces, and suicide watch units without supervision,” Brown said, “and other cells without being checked on for hours.

It was reported that Brown’s sister was left alone for 47 minutes, though it is required that those in solitary have to be checked on every 15 minutes. 

Commissioner of the Department of Correction Vincent Schiraldi, shed some light on this during the hearing, saying, “What goes out [publicly] would be self-serving for us to be the ones publicizing those investigations when really, medical doctors and an investigatory body should be doing them.” 

When asked how many of those who died, whether from suicide or other causes, could not afford bail, the deputy mayor said that information will go on the long list of requests from the assembly they’ll have to fulfill at a later date. 

Commissioner Schiraldi confirmed that they’ll be investigating the staffing levels on the days that each death was reported, adding “That is a disturbing part of it. That is absolutely a disturbing part, when that comes out.” 

Would proper staffing of correctional officers have prevented an inmate from committing suicide? Former Rikers worker-turned consultant Michael Lambert told PoliticsNY that safety on Rikers is more difficult than it seems. 

“If you’re one person responsible for a unit that has 40 people in it, that’s going to be hard to keep track of. Someone could be in the day room harming themselves,” Lambert said, adding this issue is compounded by the fact that many officers were working triple shifts to make up for low staffing. 

There is currently a conversation on providing more resources to mental health professionals and social workers so that they can answer calls that the NYPD would normally report to—Lambert says this could also be a conversation in jails on Rikers Island. 

“​​It’s a contradiction of goals and objectives. As a healthcare provider, your job is to keep people healthy and safe,” he said. Corrections officers may not be able to maintain that same priority. 

The assembly hearing lasted for hours after this, cycling through medical professionals, former Rikers detainees and their families, many whose cries to close Rikers grew louder and louder.

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