Lawyers show solidarity with Rikers prisoners on hunger strike

Lawyers across New York City have backed hundreds of inmates on Rikers Island who refused to eat in protest of the current circumstances in the prison complex, such as COVID-19 lockdowns, corrections staff shortages and poor access to medical care.

Advocacy groups in solidarity with Wednesday’s hunger strike, including New York City Defender Services, Bronx Defenders and #HALTSolitary, argued that the ill and inhumane treatment of detainees must end.

“The fact that people incarcerated in city jails have resorted to the extreme measure of denying themselves food to draw attention to the sickening conditions on Rikers should concern everyone,” said New York City spokesman Lupe Todd-Medina Defender Services. “The shameful disregard for fundamental human and constitutional rights by Rikers is an ongoing humanitarian crisis. During the pandemic, the Department of Correction has repeatedly failed to bring people to justice, placing thousands of New Yorkers unjustly behind bars as they wait for their trial to begin.”

In December, then Commissioner of the New York City Correction Department Vincent Schiraldic announced that personal visits, joint programs and religious services would be suspended until further notice due to a significant rise in coronavirus cases. COVID-19 positivity rates rose from 9.5% to 17% within 24 hours, forcing Schiraldi to take action and respond with security measures within the complex.

Supporters expressed concern about the mental health of detainees who lack the services they need. Schiraldi even joined defenders and wrote a letter to then-Mayor Bill de Blasio, who requested the release of detainees after declaring that Rikers was no longer safe. A total of 16 detainees died in 2021, double the amount of the previous two years.

Proponents say the only solution is to release the detainees and shut down Rikers once and for all.

“Decarceration is the only immediate solution. Restricting traffic and the rights of incarcerated people — cutting off their access to fresh air, exercise and phone calls home — is not the way to solve the decades of neglect on Rikers Island,” Todd-Medina said. “Our city’s judges, prosecutors and elected officials must immediately act on the direct request of former Commissioner Schiraldi and release people from Rikers. Only then will they be able to stop the breathtaking spread of COVID-19 and ensure the basic needs of those in their custody are met.”

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