Lawmakers, faith leaders, organizers and those who have lost loved ones gathered to erect a prison graveyard outside of the New York State Capitol building in Albany to protest what they believe to be inhumane and life-threatening conditions at the jail.
Protesters on May 31 remembered those who have died in custody, emphasizing their accomplishments and contributions while also demanding passage of the Elder Parole and Fair and Timely Parole bills, both of which would require parole to be offered to incarcerated individuals who do not pose a threat to society.
Based on data released in October of 2021 by Columbia University’s Center for Justice, a person dies in New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) custody once every three days. Meaning if the legislative body does not reconvene before Jan 2 (the first Monday of the new year), an estimated 71 inmates will die. Nearly half of them (32) will be Black people, and 56% will be elderly.
“Since the 1980s, the death rate of incarcerated New Yorkers who have served 15+ years has increased 777 percent, and over half of those that die in the system are 55 years and older,” said State Senator Brad Hoylman, lead Senate sponsor of the Elder Parole bill. “We must address our state’s mass incarceration problem by passing common-sense legislation that treats incarcerated New Yorkers with dignity. To help rectify the harms of our broken incarceration system, the Legislature must pass my bill with Assembly Member Davila (S.15-A/A.8855) to guarantee a parole hearing for those 55 and older that have served at least 15 years, also known as our Elder Parole bill. We must also pass Fair & Timely Parole to ensure the Parole Board gives incarcerated individuals a meaningful opportunity for parole. This is quite literally a matter of life or death.”
The protest follows the death of Emmanuel Sullivan who died on May 29 while awaiting trial for robbery at Rikers. Sullivan is the sixth person to die in custody at Rikers this year alone, and the 22nd since January of 2021.
“I’m 57 and I can’t even fathom if I had gone through the diabetic coma I suffered in November while still incarcerated,” said Roni Minter of Freedom Unchained in Albany. “I wouldn’t have made it. I would have died. I’m thinking about all the women I left behind who would benefit from these bills. While we’re out here fighting there are people hoping and praying they can get out alive.”
New York City Mayor Eric Adams spoke out in defense of the City’s handling of the crisis at Rikers earlier this month, saying federal intervention at the jail was unnecessary, despite the increasing death toll.
“I’m not surrendering this city to anyone that believes we can’t do our job,” said Mayor Adams on May 19. “And let’s be clear, I don’t see federal penitentiaries running smoothly. Go right to the federal penitentiary in Brooklyn and see the concerns I have in there.”