New York City’s Correctional Facility at Rikers Island is at the center of a growing scandal. The number of reported incidents of extreme cruelty and wrongful death are beginning to add up. A recently released document from the city’s independent Department of Investigation has added fuel to the fire.
Jeremy Murdough, a 75-year-old homeless African-American veteran, was arrested in February for trespassing in a stairwell, trying to keep warm in freezing temperatures. He was taken to Rikers Island, where he died a few days later. Murdough died because “malfunctioning equipment” kept his cell at over 100 degrees for several days, which caused his organs to fail. As a prison official told the Associated Press, “He baked to death.” (March 19)
Documents released by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which handles medical care at Rikers, tell of further atrocities. In one incident, three corrections officers beat an inmate bloody and then falsely declared him to be suicidal to cover their actions. Video proves that officers tied a noose with the inmate’s pants to back up their claim. (newsone.com, July 22)
In 2012, two corrections officers beat a handcuffed man and then falsified documents to cover it up. Their misdeed was discovered. However, the Bronx district attorney has declined to prosecute them. (New York Times, Aug. 5)
New York City will pay a settlement of $2.75 million to the family of Ronald Spear, a 52-year-old man who died due to “blunt force trauma” applied to his head by guards. His death was ruled a homicide, but again no criminal charges have been brought against the officers. (NYT, July 21)
In more than 129 incidents in 2013, inmates suffered serious injuries requiring medical treatment outside the prison due to brutalization by guards. The July 14 New York Times wrote, “77 percent of the seriously injured inmates had received a mental illness diagnosis,” and the vast majority of these 129 prisoners were beaten after they were handcuffed.
Between January and May of this year, there have been an additional 1,844 incidents involving the “use of force” by guards. (NYT, June 24)
On Aug. 4, the Justice Department released a study of Rikers guards’ violent conduct toward youth from 2011 to 2013. It found that as of October 2012, nearly 44 percent of male youth had been “subjected to the use of force by the correctional staff.” (NYT, Aug. 6)
Racism and prison profits
Rikers Island is a waterlocked penal colony. No one enters the island without permission from the Department of Corrections. The facility holds approximately 12,300 inmates at any given time. The overwhelming majority of the inmates are always Black and Brown.
Most inmates on Rikers Island have been sentenced for petty crimes involving drugs or theft. There are also thousands of prisoners awaiting trial who can’t make bail. After 16-year-old African American Kalief Browder from the Bronx was arrested, he waited at Rikers for three years because his family could not afford the $10,000 bail. He was finally released without charges. Now 20 years old, Browder told WABC-TV, “They just dismissed the case and they think it’s all right. No apology, no nothing.” (alternet.org, Nov. 25)
Rikers Island is highly privatized, with many different contractors employed by the city to handle food, medical care, drug treatment and other functions. The New York City Independent Budget Office determined that the cost of Rikers Island is approximately $167,000 per inmate every year. (15minutenews.com, Aug. 23, 2013)
With its record of harsh conditions and brutality, Rikers Island is not unique. Conditions like those at Rikers are common in prisons and jails throughout the country.
Over 2.5 million people are locked up in the United States. The majority are African American and Latino/a, and nearly all of them are low-income workers. Like at Rikers Island, high profits are being made all over the U.S. by corporations contracted to manage prison services. Locking up millions of people across the country is a multibillion-dollar industry. In many states, “private prisons,” which are operated entirely by profit-making entities, have been established.
Concentration camps for the poor
The proliferation of police, prisons and other manifestations of state repression in the U.S. is widely visible. Schools are rapidly becoming staffed with police officers and equipped with metal detectors, and students are frequently subjected to drug searches and lockdowns. In Texas and other states, disciplinary matters are being turned into criminal proceedings, with legal citations being filed for classroom misconduct.
This rise of prisons and state repression is being met with resistance. Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow” has popularized opposition to mass incarceration and its blatant racism. Dr. Cornel West and the Rev. Stephen Phelps of Riverside Church in New York have been outspoken in their opposition to the rise of prisons and have called for protests and acts of civil disobedience.
Cecily McMillan, the Occupy Wall Street activist who was recently released from Rikers Island after being convicted of assaulting a police officer, wrote a piece for the July 23 New York Times exposing the conditions she observed. McMillan described how a Latina inmate named Judith died as a result of not receiving proper medical care.
The struggle against the growing prison system is increasingly linked to the struggle to defend civil liberties, the movement against cuts in social services and the overall class struggle. The protests against mass incarceration are just one part of anti-capitalist resistance, with the potential to emerge much stronger as the crisis continues. Activists are saying things like: “Imagine if New York City spent the $167,000 per inmate on a jobs program instead. People could be hired to do useful work. Poverty and crime could be reduced, not perpetuated.”
Sam Marcy, the founder of Workers World Party, called prisons “concentration camps for the poor.” He raised the slogan “Tear down the walls” when building opposition to the racist prison system. With continuing horrors like those exposed at Rikers Island and the ongoing suffering of millions, calls by revolutionaries to overthrow the capitalist state will be heard by many.