Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and three other House Democrats from New York called on Mayor de Blasio and Gov. Hochul Tuesday to release all inmates held on Rikers Island, citing a long-running pattern of “human right violations” at the jail.
Ocasio-Cortez made the extraordinary demand in a letter to de Blasio and Hochul issued jointly with Reps. Jamaal Bowman, Nydia Velazquez and Jerrold Nadler, who chairs the powerful House Judiciary Committee.
In addition to freeing the roughly 6,000 inmates on the island, the four lawmakers wrote that the jail itself should be “immediately” shuttered and federal funding for its operations seized.
“The current conditions experienced at Rikers are inhumane, unconstitutional and a public health crisis,” they wrote. “We believe federal funds should be used to decarcerate and shut down the facility immediately, as well as provide social, economic, psychological and physical health support to all those that are released to ensure their safe reentry into our community.
Neither the mayor nor the governor have entertained the idea of freeing all Rikers inmates as they scramble to address the spiraling crisis at the overcrowded jail.
Rather, de Blasio and Hochul have pushed for releasing a subset of inmates locked up for technical parole violations. Hochul signed a bill into law last week that would make it so minor parole violations are no longer punishable by jail, but most components of that measure won’t take effect until 2022.
A spokesman for de Blasio did not immediately return a request for comment on the lawmakers’ letter.
Hochul did not offer outright support for releasing all Rikers inmates, but her press secretary, Hazel Crampton-Hayes, said the governor “is committed to continuing to work with city and federal partners on solutions.”
Making their case for releasing all inmates, Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues wrote that more than 4,600 of the roughly 6,000 inmates on Rikers are being detained pretrial — representing over 76% of the jail’s population. Nearly 1,500 inmates are detained for misdemeanor or nonviolent crimes, they also noted.
The congressional members said that despite being placed under federal monitoring in 2018, Rikers has seen an increase in inmate deaths, with 11 people dying in custody this year alone.
Conditions at the jail are devolving as well, and state legislators witnessed “nothing short of a humanitarian crisis” when they toured Rikers earlier this month, the pols wrote.
“Assembly member Jessica González-Rojas witnessed, ‘countless men being piled on top of each other, laying in their own urine and feces and people not getting the care that they needed. There was a transgender woman who was placed in a male facility and not getting her hormones or medical care,’” they wrote. “It is unconscionable to allow these conditions to persist any longer.”
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