A group of congressional Democrats from New York on Friday called on President Biden to use federal resources to address the crisis at Rikers Island, expressing a lack of confidence in the city’s ability to restore order to the jail complex.
The letter was coordinated by Representative Ritchie Torres and signed by seven other lawmakers, most of whom represent parts of New York City. It said that the situation at Rikers Island, where 11 people who were being held in custody have died this year, was a humanitarian crisis that posed a civil rights threat to the more than 5,000 people being housed there.
Shortly after news of the letter emerged, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would visit Rikers Island next week. The visit would represent his first since June 2017, and came after a number of state lawmakers called on him to witness conditions there himself.
Mr. Torres, in an interview, said that egregious mismanagement of the complex during Covid-19 had led to deplorable conditions that have been exacerbated by a crisis of absenteeism among the facility’s correction officers.
Nearly 2,000 uniformed officers call in sick or are otherwise absent on a daily basis, leaving those detained there without urgent medical or mental health care, and delaying the delivery of basic necessities like food and water.
“The city cannot be trusted to manage Rikers Island on its own,” Mr. Torres said, noting that city leaders had not yet acknowledged the situation as a humanitarian crisis. Mr. Torres said that he expected a response from Mr. Biden by next week.
“Rikers Island is increasingly becoming a death sentence for those who have never been tried, much less convicted of a crime,” Mr. Torres added. “If that is not a civil rights violation that warrants a federal investigation, I’m not sure what would be.”
The congressional letter, which was first reported by NY1, said that an emergency plan released by Mayor Bill de Blasio last week did not represent the kind of direct intervention that was clearly required to ease the crisis.
In another development on Friday, an emergency hearing was convened in federal court in Manhattan to discuss the possible release of detainees, as well as other measures that could be put into effect to ease the jail crisis.
During the hearing, Steve J. Martin, a federal monitor charged with overseeing conditions at Rikers, said that he had recently reviewed an incident in which officers who were six feet away from an incarcerated person who was actively hanging himself failed to intercede or even acknowledge what was happening. The outcome of the incident was not immediately clear. Mr. Martin called for an outside security consultant to intervene at the facility.
This week, a man who was being held at the Vernon C. Bain center — a floating jail barge docked north of Rikers Island — died in city custody. The man, Stephan Khadu, was the 12th person who had been held in a New York City jail to die this year.
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