Rikers Island, New York
March, 2020

In response to a growing outbreak of COVID-19 on Rikers Island, prisoners have participated in multiple protests demanding proper medical care, access to protective equipment and cleaning supplies, and release of certain high risk prisoners and prisoners with short sentences for nonviolent offenses.

On Saturday, March 21, 8 prisoners at the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers Island refused orders to “lock in”, demanding medical care. According to The City, the prisoners were demanding that their temperatures be taken after another prisoner, who had been responsible for delivering food to other prisoners, was removed from the unit after exhibiting flu symptoms. The 8 prisoners were pepper sprayed in the face by guards while waiting for treatment.

“The Department of Correction is treating us like animals,” said Angel Barbosa, who spoke with The City over the phone from Rikers. “There was no riot,” he added. “It was just a couple of inmates asking to go to the clinic.”

The following day, on March 22, approximately 90-100 prisoners at Rikers’s Robert N. Davoren Center participated in a strike, according to multiple sources in touch with people incarcerated there. The prisoners were demanding immediate action in response to the growing COVID-19 epidemic inside the jail.

One prisoner, who spoke under conditions of anonymity to journalist Kim Kelly, reported on his participation in the strike, which lasted two days:

So the day before yesterday, we stuck it up, which was that mini strike. We didn’t leave the dorm for work or meals—that got some attention, which is good, actually it got a lot of attention—so we got some cleaning supplies and masks and screenings from that. I think a reporter asked de Blasio about it at the last press conference, somebody told me Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez mentioned it [recently], which is great.

But we were demanding the release of the people here that the Board of Correction demanded be released, everyone 50 and over [with minor violations], with health problems, with less than a year remaining, and parole violations, but that still hasn’t happened. They… came down with a list of people, and read off about a dozen names on each side. I’m on one dorm, right, and across the hall is another dorm, and there’s what they call the bubble in the middle, which is a Plexiglass-encased [corrections officer] observation station, and so if you’re looking straight through the bubble, you can see into the other dorm and wave at people.

The [mini strike] is done, it’s over, we couldn’t really do it if we wanted to. Yesterday, nobody was called for work, nobody was called for the yard, when we were called for meals, we went up to the top of the staircase and each grabbed a tray, instead of going down to the mess hall. So yesterday was a weird day. … Sending 12 people home and having multiple DOC people come in without masks and wander around in a supposedly quarantined dorm every hour or so, it’s completely ridiculous.

It makes you feel like not only do they not care about us, we knew that, but they’re just completely incompetent, and they’re much more interested in covering their asses from a litigation standpoint than they are in actually taking care of people. That much is clear. They go around and put up posters before they give you cleaning supplies, before they even tell you anything. We had to go on a mini strike to get cleaning supplies, to get personal protective equipment, but they’ll go around and put up posters and signs that say to stay six feet apart, like oh, okay (laughs). It’s complete nonsense.

 

Citations:

New York Prison Labor Makes Hand Sanitizer, Prepares to Dig Graves if Coronvirus Worsens“, The Daily Beast, March 10, 2020.

“‘Trapped on Rikers’: Jails and prisons face coronavirus catastrophe as officials slowly authorize releases“, Washington Post, March 23, 2020.

Rikers Inmates Pepper Sprayed for Demanding Medical Care, Sources Say“, The City, March 23, 2020.

If Coronavirus Deaths Start Piling Up in Rikers Island Jails, We’ll Know Who to Blame“, The Intercept, March 23, 2020.

Coronavirus Has Come to Rikers, and the People Inside Are Fighting to Survive“, The Appeal, March 24, 2020.

What It’s Like to Be Inside Rikers Island As Coronavirus Spreads”, The Appeal, March 24, 2020.