MSNBC’s Tiffany Cross addressed the shocking conditions by opening with a heartbreaking clip of 16-year old Kalief Browder talking about being “scared all day” and being punished by correction officers who denied him meals. He was also beaten by them. Even more heartbreaking is that Browder spent three years at Rikers, for allegedly stealing a backpack, without ever being tried. After charges were dropped and he was released, Browder committed suicide, two years later.
Not much seems to have improved, even though New York City voted to close Rikers Island nearly two years ago. Cross described the current situation at Rikers as “a spate of inmate deaths, cellblocks unguarded, staggering staffing shortages caused by guards who have essentially gone AWOL, detainees are being deprived of food just like we heard Kalief Browder say.” Last week, an inmate became the 11th to die there, just this year.
“WTF is happening at Rikers and what does it say about us as a society that we are standing by, allowing this happen?” Cross asked.
Guest and New York State Sen. Jabari Brisport confirmed the horrors. He said when he visited one of the housing units at Rikers, “I had to wade through trash and dead roaches and talked to incarcerated inmates who were cleaning up, themselves, and asking the warden for more cleaning supplies.”
Brisport said that some of his colleagues “saw people who had been there for days, when they were expected to be there for hours, and were given bags to urinate and defecate in because there was no facilities available for them. It is an absolute nightmare and a humanitarian crisis.”
Not surprisingly, nearly 90% of the Rikers population is Black and Hispanic. “This says a lot about how we prioritize and view people of color in this country, that we would allow them to live in these subhuman conditions,” Cross noted. She also pointed out there are other prisons around the country where “this type of subhuman treatment is tolerated.”
Akeem Browder, Kalief’s brother and a prison reform advocate, was the other guest. He brought up that COVID is making the terrible situation even worse. “How many of us have to die before the mayor or the D.A. or the judges take control?” he asked.
So what’s the delay in shutting down Rikers and “bringing some sense of humanity?” Cross asked Brisport.
He saw two causes. One is the lack of political will by the mayor and governor and the second is the messaging that it’s merely a crisis of staffing. “It’s not about getting better guards of more guards, there need to be fewer people at Rikers and fewer people in prison,” Brisport said.
Fortunately, the public attention seems to be working. The New York Times reported that members of Congress from New York wrote to President Joe Biden on Friday, calling on him to use federal resources to address the crisis and expressing a lack of confidence in the city’s ability to do so. Shortly thereafter, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he’ll visit there next week, his first since June, 2017, according to the Times. Also on Friday, “an emergency hearing was convened in federal court in Manhattan to discuss the possible release of detainees as well as security measures that could be put into effect to ease the jail crisis,” the Times also reported.