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More than 200 inmates at Rikers Island are refusing meals over staffing shortages

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

More than 200 inmates at Rikers Island are on a hunger protest. They are refusing meals provided by the corrections department, limiting themselves to the commissary. Staffing shortages and COVID lockdowns have made conditions worse at the New York prison, where 15 people died in 2021. Inmates sent a voicemail to public defenders on Monday to explain their decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We have not began to get medical attention in a timely fashion. We are currently on a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week lockdown. We are not receiving law library services. This is hindering our due process.

SIMON: Alice Fontier is managing director of the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem. Thanks so much for being with us.

ALICE FONTIER: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Your organization represents a number of inmates at Rikers. Tell us about what you know about conditions there.

FONTIER: Conditions at Rikers have been deteriorating for the last several months. They hit a crisis point this summer and into the fall. There are very few officers working on the units, which means that, you know, the incarcerated people are left to fend for themselves. So safety and security are all but gone. They are missing appointments, including medical, mental health. They're not always getting food on a regular schedule. They're missing court dates. It is a humanitarian crisis.

SIMON: It sounds as if what were often characterized as dire conditions have gotten even worse during COVID lockdown. Would that be fair to say?

FONTIER: That's absolutely fair to say. It's worse by a number of magnitude for many reasons. One is the staffing problems that they are having. Two is COVID itself. It's running rampant through the jails. And the way that it is being handled is they just lock down units and hold people into place. And COVID is spreading.

SIMON: You mentioned the lack of security. What has that meant inside the prison?

FONTIER: Violence is rampant. The minimum staffing that is supposed to happen in the general units is that there is an officer in what is known as the bubble, but it's basically the office that looks into the units. But there's always supposed to be an officer there who runs the doors, open and closes the locks, that kind of thing and calls for backup when needed. And then there are also supposed to be officers in the unit to make sure that if something happens, they can step in and break it up. Most of the units for months on end now have not had an officer except in the bubble - so nobody on the floor. And we have heard reports from our clients that many times, there's not even someone in the bubble.

There have been times over the last few months when incarcerated people were controlling the entire unit, and that often is - it's been categorized as gangs. And in some instances, it actually is. And they are choosing who can come in and who can go out. We have seen video of people running what are effectively fight clubs, forcing people into cells to fight each other. And none of it is being stopped or broken up by officers. It is kind of the worst nightmare for a jail facility.

FONTIER: Ms. Fontier, what are you calling on officials to do?

FONTIER: Rikers is particularly complicated because there is a staffing shortage in that many of the officers who are paid to be in the facility are not coming to work. But they could reallocate the staff. They could prioritize safety and security within the facility. I think all of that is highly unlikely. And so what we have called on people to do is to decarcerate. They need to release probably 2,000 people out of the 5-plus that are there in order to be able to regain safety and security within the facility.

SIMON: I have to ask. As soon as you mentioned that possibility, Ms. Fontier - I mean, you're a New Yorker. Imagine what New Yorkers think when they hear, you know, 2,000 people from Rikers are going to be released for their own security. Can you imagine New Yorkers saying, what about our security?

FONTIER: That is what they're saying, but it's out of scare tactics that DAs and NYPD have used for years that are not actually backed up by fact or truth. There are hundreds of people incarcerated pretrial on Rikers Island presumed to be innocent on misdemeanors, on technical parole violation still. There are more than a thousand people who are incarcerated on nonviolent, low-level felonies, theft from stores and that kind of thing. There's also just no statistical proof that releasing people pretrial increases any sort of violence or recidivism or impacts public safety in any way. It's just not true. And we need to be able to move forward and address what is a humanitarian crisis with truth and facts instead of scare tactics.

SIMON: Alice Fontier is managing director of the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem. Thank you so much for being with us.

FONTIER: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.