A SINKING JAIL: THE ENVIRONMENTAL DISASTER THAT IS RIKERS ISLAND

Mar 18, 2016 by

GRISTrikers-sinking-jail
By Raven Rakia

There’s a known stench on Rikers Island in the New York summertime. Neither the people incarcerated there, nor the correction officers working there, can escape it. “The smell alone would torture you,” says Candie Hailey-Means, who was incarcerated at Rikers until May 2015. “It smells like sewer, mixed with fertilizer, mixed with death.”

Hailey-Means was sent to Rikers on Feb. 22, 2012, when she was 28 years old. Six weeks after her arrival, Hailey-Means was sent to solitary confinement after an incident with one of the guards. (Hailey-Means says the guard assaulted her but she was written up for assaulting the guard.) She spent two years and three months in solitary, locked in a 6-by-10-foot cell for 23 to 24 hours a day. A small slot in the door, where she would receive meals, was her only connection to the outside world.
Candie Hailey-Means sits on a bench near the housing complex where she once lived in New York.Candie Hailey-Means sits on a bench near the housing complex where she once lived in New York.AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

Hailey-Means’ mental and physical health quickly deteriorated. Her treatment by guards and the intolerable conditions in solitary confinement — complete isolation, extreme temperatures, polluted air, the stink of the landfill — led Candie to try to take her own life. About two weeks after being locked in “the bing” (the colloquial term for solitary), Hailey-Means first tried to drown herself in her toilet bowl. The suicide attempts continued from there: swallowing Nair, saving medication for a week to take all at once, cutting her wrists. There were more than eight attempts in total.

Hailey-Means described the summer heat in solitary as unbearable. She developed heat rashes, and cited the high temperatures as part of the environment that led her to attempt suicide: “Imagine being stuck in an elevator for three years and the temperature is [unbearably] hot.”aerial-view-doc-searls

Her story is just one of many over the past two years that illustrates the harrowing conditions at the Rikers Island multi-jail complex in New York City. Media outlets like The New York Times have documented the violence and human rights issues in multiple investigations. While the overall amount of violence is down from historical highs in the ’90s, 2015 had the highest numbers for both guard-on-inmate use-of-force and inmate-on-inmate violence in the past five years.

The problems at Rikers tend to overwhelmingly afflict certain groups of people, too. About 40 percent of the Rikers population has been diagnosed with a mental illness. And the overwhelming majority of the people incarcerated on the island — about 90 percent — are black or Latino.

To further complicate matters: The vast majority of people detained at Rikers have not been convicted of a crime. Some, like Hailey-Means, will have to wait years before going to a trial. For those who have been convicted, they’re carrying out short-term sentences for low-level offenses.

Footage of Rikers when it was a large landfill operation in 1903.Library of Congress

On Dec. 18, 2014, Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced the Justice Department’s plan to sue New York City due to the abuse of inmates on Rikers Island. (The lawsuit was consolidated with a 2011 class-action lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Society.) Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a number of reforms in 2015, including the addition of Enhanced Supervision Housing units and daily violence prevention programs. The Board of Correction also implemented reforms on solitary confinement that reduced the number of people held there.

It’s the abuse and violence at Rikers that have received the most attention. But there’s another dimension to the ongoing disaster there: the dangerous environmental conditions. Rikers is built on a landfill. The ground underneath the facilities is unstable and the decomposing garbage emits poisonous methane gas. In addition to extreme heat and poor air quality, flooding and crumbling infrastructure pose a serious threat, especially when superstorms like Hurricane Sandy strike. As the violence and human rights violations worsen, so do the environmental circumstances surrounding Rikers.

Inside Rikers Island

Map of Rikers Island

1. Power plant

Rikers has its own power plant. In 2014, the plant released 127 million pounds of CO2 emissions. A more efficient co-generation plant began operating in the beginning of 2015.
2. Otis Bantum Correctional Center

The 400 solitary units in OBCC are not air conditioned. In 2013, a doctor called the temperature situation at Rikers “a serious health threat.”
3. North Infirmary Command

Houses mostly sick inmates. The unit only recently got air conditioning.
4. Anna M. Kross Center

The largest jail on Rikers has more than 2,000 beds. Complaints of flooding at AMKC were sent to the Legal Aid Society in 2015.
5. George Motchan Detention Center

Has more than 2,000 beds and houses most of Rikers’ 18 to 21 year-olds. Complaints of flooding were sent to the Legal Aid Society in 2015.
6. Robert N. Davoren Center

Has a unit for 16 to 17 year-olds. The violence in the adolescent unit was the subject of a federal report written by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in 2014. Flooding has damaged the adolescents’ school, gym, and library.
7. Rose M. Singer Center

Has a unit devoted to women. Candie Hailey-Means was incarcerated here.
8. George R. Vierno Center

Has 150 air-conditioned solitary cells. Damaged underground pipes often cause sewage backups and water shutoffs.

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