City Limits:Advocates, Attorneys Push Back Against Plan to Transfer Women and Transgender People Off Rikers

By JeanMarie Evelly via City Limits

Beginning Monday, the city and state started transferring more than 200 women and transgender people being held at Rikers Island to state-run prison facilities in Westchester County—a move officials say will help ease staffing issues at the troubled city jail complex, where conditions have deteriorated in recent months to crisis levels. Two men being held at the jails on Rikers died in recent days, bringing the death toll in the city’s jail system to 14 people in custody this year, according to the New York Times.

About 230 Rikers detainees will be moved to the Taconic and Bedford Hills state correctional facilities, a little more than an hour’s drive away. The change is intended to be temporary, Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor Bill de Blasio said, though the governor’s office did not offer a timeline for how long those moved will remain. Those transferred will have access to medical and mental health services as well as educational classes, vocational training and other programs offered at the two state facilities, officials said.

The governor, mayor and and those who praised the decision say it’s one necessary step in addressing the ongoing situation at Rikers—fueled by decades of neglect, a steadily rising inmate population over the last year and rampant staffing dysfunction, with hundreds or thousands of Department of Correction officers calling in sick or failing to show up for work each day. The jail has seen an uptick in violent incidents, including increased incidents of self-harm among detainees. Reports from visiting lawmakers and news media describe incidents of unlocked or unguarded housing units, people enduring chaotic and unsanitary conditions and detainees being cut off from access to medical care and court appointments.

“These actions will further help ease staffing concerns, capacity constraints, and improve safety for several hundred detainees until such time that the City can identify and implement a permanent solution that will bring justice to the situation at Rikers,” Hochul said in a statement announcing the transfers last week.

But attorneys and other advocates have slammed the moves to the Westchester prisons as rushed and misguided, saying the transfers could complicate detainees’ criminal cases and further isolate them from their home communities and support networks. Unlike state prisons, where those being held have already been sentenced, the vast majority of people detained at Rikers are still awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime.

“We’re sending legally innocent people to prison,” said Yonah Zeitz, communications and advocacy manager for the Katal Center for Equity, Health, & Justice, which has criticized the transfers as creating an extra hurdle for detainees in consulting with their attorneys and attending court hearings, as well as receiving visits from loved ones.

“Rikers Island, which is in the middle of the city, is inaccessible to a lot of people and a lot of families,” Zeitz said. “Putting people 40 miles up north is only going to make it harder.”

Starting Friday, the city’s DOC will start offering bus rides twice a day from locations in The Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn to transport jail visitors to the two Westchester facilities.

Still, a series of public defender organizations, including the Legal Aid Society and The Bronx Defenders, released a petition Monday signed by dozens of Rikers detainees who say the decision is forcing those being moved to “shoulder the burden” of the city’s jails crisis.

“They did not cause the problems, but they are being made to bear the burden of this ill-conceived plan,” the legal groups said in a press release.

Calls for decarceration

This isn’t the first time the city and state have moved people from Rikers to other correctional facilities in response to the current crisis: In September, another 143 men serving sentences there greater than 90 days were moved to state-run facilities elsewhere.

But public defender groups and other criminal justice advocates say the solution is not to shift people between correctional facilities but to release people from—and stop sending others to—Rikers Island.

“You can’t take people from one hellhole and put them in another,” Anisah Sabur, an organizer with the #HALTsolitary Campaign who has spent time in both Rikers and Bedford Hills, said in a statement. The campaign pointed to a 2020 survey conducted by The Correctional Association which found 74 percent of respondents serving time at Bedford Hills “had witnessed some form of violence or abuse by staff, including physical, sexual, and verbal abuse.”

“Our general sense is decarceration is the number one solution,” said Zeitz. The city and state’s decision to transfer people from Rikers for their own safety, he argued, is paramount to admitting that the jail complex is unfit for use of any kind. “For us, that means that no one should be sent to Rikers.”

In September, there were 5,804 people being held in all New York City jails, according to state data; Mayor de Blasio said Friday that the current number is around 5,500. That’s still a far cry from what it was during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when it dipped to a historic low of 3,832 in April 2020, thanks in part to a number of concerted policies aiming at reducing the population to limit the spread of coronavirus. “There’s no reason why we couldn’t do that again,” said Zeitz.

His and other advocacy groups have called for judges and district attorneys to stop asking for and setting bail in many cases, with public defenders noting that “many [defendants] cannot afford even a small amount and end up being sent to Rikers pre-trial as a result.” They’ve also pressed for both Hochul and de Blasio to authorize the release of as many detainees as possible under the auspices of their respective offices.

Hochul said that 239 individuals have been released from Rikers as a result of her signing the Less is More Act into law last month, which reformed the state’s rules around parole and aimed to reduce the number of people sent back behind bars for breaking rules of their community supervision.

But lawmakers and advocates say the governor has only partially-implemented the new law; some provisions of Less is More won’t go fully into effect until March 2022. In a letter to Hochul’s office late last month, State Sen. Michael Gianaris implored the governor to fully enforce all parts of the law immediately, saying doing so could give hundreds of people still at Rikers for parole violations a chance at release. Hochul’s office did not respond to City Limits’ request for comment.

Like bail reform before it, Less is More and other efforts to reduce the number of people in city jails have raised the hackles of some law enforcement groups, including the state’s parole officers, though advocates say attempts to link decarceration to upticks in crime are inaccurate and amount to fear-mongering.

“We’re not talking about opening up the gates. We’re talking about giving people their day in court,” said Zachary Katznelson, executive director of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, the group whose recommendations informed the de Blasio administration’s longer-term plan to close Rikers in the coming years and replace it with four smaller, borough-based jails.

Less is More, he notes, was modeled after similar successful initiatives in states like Missouri and South Carolina. “New York right now is the worst in the country in terms of the number of people we send back to prison for parole violations, but there is not evidence that actually works in keeping us safer,” he said.

For his part, Mayor de Blasio was initially resistant to using his authority to let some detainees out via an early release program known as 6-A, which offers people who have already been sentenced the ability to serve the rest of their time at home, under supervision (more than 300 people were released from city jails under 6-A at the start of the pandemic, according to a Center for Court Innovation report last year).

The mayor eventually agreed to use 6-A once again, telling WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on Oct. 1 that “we’ve started releases,” but warned that there would be “a very limited number, probably be in the dozens,” who could be released under the law who have no other outstanding warrants, and were not involved in a violent or sexual crime. “I’m not releasing folks who did a violent crime or a sexual offense or have a history around that,” de Blasio said, according to a transcript from the show.

The mayor’s office told City Limits Tuesday that de Blasio has so far authorized seven detainees for release under 6-A; each were facing city-imposed sentences and had release dates pending relatively soon, according to a spokesperson. They’ll continue to be supervised until their sentences end, the spokesperson added.

Rather than focusing on direct releases, the mayor has instead stressed the need for the courts to speed up their operations, saying COVID restrictions continue to bog down the system. More than 1,000 people being held at Rikers have awaited trial for longer than a year, he said. 

“Almost everything else in the city is fully functioning. The courts are not,” de Blasio told Brian Lehrer. “That’s hurting us deeply.”

More facilities, more oversight?

During the announcement about the transfer to Westchester last week, the mayor pointed to other efforts that he says “have made encouraging progress,” at Rikers, including issuing suspensions to DOC officers who fail to show up at work. But conditions remain dire at the jail complex; a report released Friday by the federal monitor that oversees Rikers noted the “depth and dimensions” of the problems there, according to Legal Aid Society. “These actions have not materially abated the high risk of harm prevalent in the daily operations of the New York DOC to both incarcerated persons and staff,” it read, according to LAS.

This is why Katznelson considers the city and state’s decision to relocate the women and transgender detainees further north “a positive move,” or rather, the lesser of several bad options. “Unquestionably it makes things more difficult,” he said. “At the same time, at Rikers, they’re not receiving services…None of them are good alternatives.”

The transfers must be temporary, Katznelson added. A longer-term solution, he suggests, would be for the state to hand over two now-defunct prison facilities—Lincoln Correctional Facility on 110th Street in Harlem and Bayview Correctional Facility on Chelsea’s west side—to the city’s Department of Correction for use.

This would provide the city with closer alternatives to Rikers than the Westchester facilities, he argued, and would also mean the borough-based jail planned for Queens, which is set to house female detainees when it opens, could have a smaller footprint—what he called a “winwin for everybody.” (The borough-based jails planned to replace Rikers, including the one in Queens, have faced fierce resistance from some neighborhood and community groups, with many calling for the city to put funding and resources into alternatives to incarceration instead).

In his role as a lawmaker, Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell, who represents the west side of Manhattan, says he’s visited 38 of the state’s prisons, and found that while the Bedford Hills and Taconic facilities are “not badly run,” problems do persist throughout New York’s correctional system. (Still: “I’d rather go to Attica than go to Rikers,” he said in an interview with City Limits. “That’s not a very promising statement.”)

He says the Rikers crisis proves the need for “a different way to to do this”—namely, for greater oversight of all New York’s prisons and jails. He’s introduced legislation to create an Office of the Correctional Ombudsman, which would investigate complaints and major incidents related to both state prisons and local jails like Rikers.

While the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision already has oversight bodies, like the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) and the State Commission of Correction, those entities have been ineffective at providing adequate accountability, O’Donnell argued. The city’s Board of Corrections, which oversees conditions in city Department of Correction jails, includes “some very good people,” but lacks the investigative powers that his Ombudsman office would wield, including the ability to issue subpoenas and authorize autopsies, he said.

Other states, like Indiana, have similar independent offices to oversee corrections.

“We have a crisis in our jail and prison system,” O’Donnell told City Limits, saying he’ll be pushing hard for the passage of his bill in the upcoming legislative session in Albany. “It has been introduced and I’m going to bang the drum, so to speak.”