How to Die on Rikers Island
Author: Ashlye Meyer, J.D.
November 21, 2023
In 2022, 19 people died at the Rikers Island jail facility in New York City. This was more than any other year before. A culture of cover-ups, secrets, and violence was becoming the norm. Just in 2023 alone, 9 people have died with 2 people dying this past month. Rikers is a hotbed for torture and death, and New York’s mayor—Eric Adams—is refusing federal intervention. When I sat down with multiple attorneys, law professors, and even former inmates all had one impression of the jail: total chaos. New York City also has other jail facilities, notably in Brooklyn and one in downtown Manhattan colloquially referred to as “the Tombs.” But none have a reputation for violence, death, and disorganization like Rikers Island. In 2023, a federal monitor was appointed to oversee the gross oversight taking place on the Island. As mentioned, this was met with great resistance by New York City administrative officials. So, why is Rikers so particularly poised for oppressive violence? A few reasons, but one thing is for sure: whether it be the historical or geographical circumstances surrounding Rikers Island, nothing is accidental.
Rikers is technically located in the Bronx but is only accessible by a bridge in Northern Queens. It uses East Elmhurst’s zip code. The jails are panopticon-like—with a center hub and spokes of cell blocks sticking out. Public defender and former Rikers Island parole attorney, Mani Tafari described the Island as “Almost like time stands still in there. The architecture is exactly as it was back in 1860 when the Black soldiers were at Rikers, it looks exactly the same.” What Tafari is referring to is the 26th United States Colored Infantry, which was an African American infantry regiment stationed in New York during the Civil War. They were organized at Rikers Island from 1864 to 1865. “The buildings look the same, when you drive around… the landmarks, they look the same.” It’s not surprising to hear that time has stood still on Rikers. Reported conditions have included floors soiled with feces and blood, maggot-infested food, and clogged ventilation systems, to name just a few.
Perhaps Rikers’ most famous victim was a young man named Kalief Browder. On June 6, 2015, Browder hanged himself from an air conditioning unit in his mother’s Bronx apartment. It’s been said that Browder learned to kill himself while in jail. At just sixteen, Browder had spent three years on Rikers Island. A whopping eighty seven percent of the inmate population at Rikers is being held pre-trial. The term “pre-trial detention” is just a euphemism for the legal paradox that is people who are lawfully detained while also legally and constitutionally innocent. Browder was no different. In 2010, he was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack containing a camera, some cash, an iPod, and a credit card. When the police searched him, they never recovered a backpack, but Browder was nonetheless arrested. At his arraignment, he was charged with robbery, grand larceny, and assault. Bail was set at three thousand dollars. Because Browder’s family couldn’t pay the bail, he was sent to Rikers Island. It is important to note that these are the people who are living on Rikers Island—not those who are guilty of crimes, but those who are simply too poor to buy their way out of the bail system.
Kalief Browder subsequently spent the next three years in and out of solitary confinement. He was the victim of multiple instances of carceral violence. While in solitary, Browder attempted to take his life twice. Once in 2012, he tried to tie his bed sheets together to make a noose and hang himself from the light fixture in his cell.
I asked long-time public defender Matthew Thomas exactly how it is possible for someone convicted of no crime to spend so much time incarcerated: “There’s a statute in the criminal procedure law, CPL 30.30, which guarantees the right to a speedy trial… On a felony, if the defendant is incarcerated for 90 days and the prosecution is not ready in those 90 days, then the defense can make a motion under CPL 30.30(2)(a) to have the defendant released, because it’s been 90 days and the prosecution is still not ready.” However, in Browder’s case, the prosecution was ready within 74 four days—within their legal time frame. A grand jury indicted him in July 2010 and in December of that year, both sides submitted statements of readiness and set a potential trial date. On January 28, 2011, 258 days after his arrest, Browder appeared in court. The prosecution requested a deferment of proceedings:
On June 23, 2011, the People were not ready.
Again, on August 24, 2011, the People were not ready.
On November 4, 2011, the People were not ready, as the prosecutor was on trial.
On December 2, 2011, the People were not ready, as the prosecutor was still on trial, January 3, 2012, was requested.
Again, on June 29, 2012, the People were not ready.
On September 28, 2012, the People were not ready.
On November 2, 2012, the People were not ready.
On December 14, 2012, the People were not ready.
After 961 days in Rikers, Browder had appeared before eight judges. Finally, on March 13, 2013, Browder appeared before Bronx judge Patricia DiMango. She offered Browder a plea bargain of immediate release for his admission of guilt to two misdemeanors with consideration of time already served. Browder refused the offer, refusing to admit any guilt, and was returned to Rikers. On May 29, 2013, DiMango freed Browder in anticipation of the dismissal of the charges against him.
A prosecutorial delay of nearly two and a half years is what quite literally kept Browder in a cage on Rikers. But this isn’t necessarily shocking or uncommon, at least to the people who live their lives in the thick of it. “All my clients on Rikers are spending more time there than they should be,” Thomas responds half-jokingly when I ask a poorly phrased question. Tell me about this client, I revise. “We believe 91 days have elapsed and therefore, we made an application pursuant to 30.30(2)(a) that the defendant be released, and the prosecutor claimed that some of that time should not be chargeable to the People because the DA’s office is understaffed. They do not have enough court reporters, and therefore, that is an exceptional circumstance, and the time shouldn’t be charged for purposes of 30.30(2)(a).” To clarify, the Queens District Attorney’s office is arguing a man be kept in jail beyond the statutory limit because they do not have enough court reporters, and this qualifies as an “exceptional circumstance.” Thomas and his team of two other attorneys have filed a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of their client with the appellate division, which subsequently granted oral argument, and is likely to hear the case sometime early October.
Joshua Valles was 31 years old when he was arrested just this past April. According to his family, Valles was battling severe drug addiction at the time he was arrested for breaking into a Brooklyn pizza shop and stealing four tables. Because Valles had three open cases and a bench warrant, bail was set at $10,000. Valles’ family could not pay, and he was sent to Rikers to await trial. Then, on Saturday, May 20, Valles allegedly complained of a headache to staff at the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers. According to DOC reports, he was taken to the hospital and subsequently died of a heart attack that Monday. No wrongdoing was found. However, when federal monitor, Steve Martin, was appointed to oversee conditions at Rikers Island, the monitor called into question the veracity of these claims. “It is unclear how the department was able to reach the conclusion that there was ‘no departmental wrongdoing’ given the limited information available about the underlying incident,” Martin wrote in his report. “[I]t remains unclear how the commissioner could have concluded in his letter to the monitor dated May 26, 2023 that there was no departmental wrong doing related to this incident, including that there is no evidence that anyone ‘submitted a false report or attempted to cover up wrongdoing,’ and that, more generally, this incident did not raise serious questions regarding security, supervision, and management of individuals in custody.” That Wednesday, Martin wrote a follow-up letter to the court stating that he had received new information that Valles was in a fight sometime in April. This was never reported or logged. The original tale was that Valles had died while en route to the hospital of a heart attack, but hospital officials had now claimed that he had severe brain swelling and a fractured skull. The question now becomes, what happened to Joshua Valles while on Rikers Island?
While speculation is not helpful nor necessary, carceral violence is endemic to the experience of those living on Rikers. In just this year so far, eight detainees have died. In 2022, nineteen detainees died at the jail: the highest number on record. If society is becoming more technologically advanced and more socially progressive, why are we failing our prison population? Part of the problem is Governor Hochul’s 2022 amendment to the new bail law, which allows for non-bailable offenses to essentially be aggregated into one big bailable offense. Here’s how this works: when a person is arrested for a crime, the charge is either bailable or non-bailable. This means the judge has the discretion to set bail or she does not. Most misdemeanors are non-bailable, meaning the judge will release the defendant on her own recognizance, give the defendant an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal right there, or a few other options. But the defendant gets to go home. If the defendant picks up another qualifying charge, this misdemeanor is now bail eligible pursuant to CPL 510.10(t). If bail is set and the defendant cannot pay, then the defendant is off to any one of New York City’s jails, one of which is Rikers Island. And this is how we end up with an almost 90% legally innocent population occupying New York City’s most violent and notorious jail.
On October 5, 2023, various news outlets began reporting that another inmate at Rikers had died. This time, he had only been in the jail for a week. Manish Kunwar was 27 years old, just a few years younger than Joshua Valles. In a statement prepared for immediate release, the Board of Correction stated that Kunwar died at 6:20AM on October 5, a mere 8 days after his arraignment at Queens Criminal Courthouse. The letter offered no explanation as to Kunwar’s death, but his attorneys at the Legal Aid Society mentioned a need for treatment in a statement: “We are devastated and outraged by the news of the passing of yet another Legal Aid client at Rikers Island, Mr. Kunwar’s case yet again highlights the harm of incarceration in lieu of treatment. If our client had access to the services he needed and stable housing, today’s tragedy could have been avoided… DOC’s continuous failure to ensure the well-being of those New Yorkers in its custody and inability to administer basic jail functions is unacceptable.” Kunwar is the 9th person to die in New York City Department of Correction custody in 2023 alone.
I was lucky enough to speak with long-time mentor and former professor of mine, Alexander Reinert, a professor of law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Supreme Court litigator, and all-around expert on prisons and jails. I asked Reinert to sit down and discuss his recent work with me, as well as to provide some broad insight on the disarray of Rikers Island. Reinert’s most recent work includes a case called Miller v. City of New York, in which multiple detainees from two of New York City’s jails—Manhattan Detention Complex and Rikers Island—alleged unconstitutional conditions of confinement. “Some examples of conditions you can’t impose on anyone is extreme heat or extreme cold; vermin infested housing. People experience it all the time, but there’s no legitimate reason or intention,” Reinert said. “In terms of what kind of conditions can be imposed when there’s a good reason, isolation in some way or separation in some way from the general population if it is merited by security needs is the kind of condition that can be imposed on people. Conditions that limit incarcerated persons’ access to certain kinds of property, certain kinds of communications with the outside world. So, these are rough examples,” he continued. In terms of the specific conditions imposed on the detainees in Miller, Reinert says they were deprived of natural light, communal space, certain educational programs, recreation, the right to move freely, or the right to proper process before being placed in a more restrictive condition. “You can have a substantive challenge to the condition, which are framed as a substantive due process challenge—that was one of the claims that we brought in Miller—and then you can have a procedural challenge to the conditions. That is, they can be conditions which the city is permitted to impose on people but not without providing process. So, in Miller we made challenges on both grounds.” The case reached a settlement of around $53 million, according to an agreement filed in federal court. I asked Reinert if he was surprised by the result reached: “The most difficult question is how do you value how much time people were forced to spend in those conditions? I’m under no illusions about the extent to which money can make up for the harms of being held in restrictive confinement for so long.”
Reinert’s disposition while discussing Rikers is telling—he doesn’t mince his words, but he is not particularly verbose, nor relaxed. I finally ask him, as someone who has practically spent his life litigating on behalf of those held in detention, what he thinks is the root cause of the violent dysfunction on the Island. “It’s a combination of indifference to people who are inside combined with more than indifference—harsh treatment of people who are inside. And because of where Rikers is, it can be hard for loved ones to get to, hard to know what’s going on inside, the infrastructure is crumbling, officers are not reporting to work. Some of the facilities there have an absolute lack of control that undermines safety. So, it’s a combination of all those things.” He paused and then continued, “But I think every death is avoidable and preventable and often related to a lot of different things—chronically insufficient medical care, chronically insufficient staff, and the fact that jail is just really dangerous. And it seems like there’s some evidence it’s getting worse.”
As I try to wrap this piece up, I’m reminded of the 26th infantry of Black soldiers. How a place where Black soldiers once chose to be, live, and take arms is now a place where white supremacist violence rages on. During our interview, Mani Tafari would remind me that things do not happen by accident, and white supremacy is one of those things. Almost 90% of the population of Rikers Island is people of color. It would be remiss to not mention that all the detainees named in this article were also men of color. “[The fact that it’s an island] definitely lends itself to the chaos and dysfunction. But also leads to the idea of out of sight out of mind. They’re not in our communities. They’re not in Queens. No one gives a shit about them. You know, as opposed to them being next to court or in the communities because they’re from our communities.” And this is part of the sneaky and insidious violence of Rikers Island. It takes young, vibrant men from our communities and either spits them back out or kills them before they have the chance to get back on their feet. It acts as a black hole of New York City and it must be closed down. I ask Tafari if he agrees, if he thinks Rikers ought to be closed. He says yes, and then says, “You, know, Rikers Island geographically, is located right next to LaGuardia [Airport]. So, you’re talking about a bunch of people incarcerated who are looking at the symbol of freedom. Just flying over their heads every day. It’s just—it’s almost salt in the wound.”
Glossary of Terms (in order of appearance)
Panopticon - An architectural design of institutionalized building in which the “guard” is centralized and can view all subjects without being seen herself. In prison studies, made popular by Michel Foucault’s Discipline & Punishment: The Birth of the Prison.
Euphemism - An indirect or mild substitution for what might be considered too harsh or blunt
Carceral - relating to jail and/or prison
Writ of Habeas Corpus - Used to bring a prisoner before the court to determine if the person's imprisonment or detention is lawful. Literally means “that you have the body.” Civil action which is usually brought against the warden who holds prisoner in custody.
Appellate - branch of the American judicial system that is responsible for hearing and reviewing appeals from trial-level courts.
Veracity - Accuracy, truthfulness, authenticity
Endemic - regularly found among; native
Procedural - refers to the constitutional requirement that when a person is denied life, liberty, or a property interest by the federal government, they must be given adequate notice, the opportunity to be heard, and a decision by a neutral decision maker in order to receive proper procedure.
Substantive - refers to the concept that the federal government may not deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. Substantive rights refer to fundamental rights that states may not deprive citizens of without a highly compelling reason.