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Rikers Island has a long history of abuses, and COVID has only made the situation worse. Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Getty Images

Rikers Island hit with hunger strike over COVID and other poor conditions

Inmates have been refusing meals since Saturday, Jan. 8, and are demanding to speak with leadership.

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Inmates on Rikers Island are on a hunger strike in protest of COVID-19 lockdowns and the poor conditions at the NYC prison facility.

About 200 male inmates at the Robert N. Davoren Complex launched the protest on Saturday, Jan. 8.  

Alice Fontier, managing director of the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, told the New York Post that the inmates have been refusing meals and asking to talk to whoever is in charge. 

“They haven’t named anybody specifically, because of the conditions and the fact that you know they are denied basic medical care, they have been on regular lockdowns, they don’t have law libraries, all of the things that we’ve been talking about this whole time,” Frontier said. 

A Department of Correction spokesperson said the detainees have been eating food from the commissary. 

“A group of detainees were refusing institutional food and instead eating commissary food. The warden is engaged with them and addressing their concerns, and our employees have been working tirelessly to keep all who work and live in our facilities safe,” the spokesperson said in a statement. 

The strike comes as cases of COVID-19 cases hit a crisis level at Rikers and other prisons in the city, forcing detainees into isolation. 

Other hunger strikers complained of the cold inside their jail dorms as temperatures plunged below freezing this week.

A jailhouse source who works at the complex told the New York Post that once any inmates in a housing unit tests positive, the whole unit has to go on lockdown. This means no recreation and no visiting. 

“They want to be off lockdown basically,” the source said. 

The protest follows a series of controversies at Rikers, including a large number of detainee suicides. Sixteen people died overall while in custody of the city’s jail system last year, and one person attempted suicide while politicians toured the facilities. 

Last September, Assemblymember Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, Senator Jessica Ramos  and State Senator Alessandra Biaggi took a tour of Rikers and were appalled by what they witnessed. 

Ramos described the conditions as “deplorable,” saying that inmates are being “denied food for days” and some have gone more than a week without medical care. 

“These men are desperate for simple medical attention, as simple as measuring their sugar to figure out whether their diabetes is under control or not…. those who need to access the methadone clinic haven’t been able to do so,” Ramos said.

Biaggi said she saw people coughing up blood inside their cells and an HIV-positive inmate who hadn’t been medicated for days. 

“Control matters in a jail, but there is no control. There’s no safety,” Biaggi said. 

Christopher Boyle, an attorney who also serves as a director of data research and policy for the New York County Defenders Service, met with one of the hunger strikers on Jan. 10. 

“We are a concerned group of residents at the Rikers Facility, particularly the RNDC building, as we speak we just wanted to let you know as of Friday, midnight Jan. 7, we decided to go on a DOC meal hunger strike, non-violently and the reason for this is due to the lack of our needs being met,” an incarcerated individual said over a voicemail to Boyle. 

The combination of freezing temperatures inside the jail, the lack of mail and personal visits from family, not being produced in court, and being denied video conferences with attorneys are just a few of the injustices shared with Boyle. 

Advocacy organizations standing in solidarity with the hunger strike, including New York City Defender Services, Bronx Defenders and #HALTSolitary, demand that the poor and inhumane treatment of detainees must come to an 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,” Lupe Todd-Medina, spokesperson for New York City Defender Services said.

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