Death Rates on Rikers Island Raises Concerns about Incarcerated Prisoners, Particularly Black and Brown

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

By Daphne Ho

NEW YORK, NY – “Even as the population of New York City jails declined over the past half decade, the death rate among detainees surged,” wrote Graham Rayman in a New York Daily News article about increasing death rates at Rikers Island.

The story notes Rikers Island is a site where several New York jails are located, holding roughly around 5,800 individuals.

But, said the NY Daily News story, there are concerns regarding conditions of the island because “death rates at Rikers Island and other lockups in 2021 and 2022 were higher than in any year since 2000,” as reported by the Board of Correction data. This information was gathered by the advocacy organization Jails Action Coalition.

Senator Julia Salazar, a Democratic representative for Brooklyn, describes the situation as “a humanitarian crisis,” asserting “the state has an obligation to act,” adding, said the story, people must “be laser-focused on the safety of all New Yorkers, and cycling people through these institutions of trauma and despair only makes the problem worse for everybody.”

The NY Daily News story notes the 2021 detainee population was “5,468 detainees per day,” where “14 detainees died,” which makes the average rate “2.56 deaths per 1,000 detainees.” In 2022, this average rose to “3.06 per 1,000 detainees” when 17 detainees died out of “an average [of] 5,562 people” jailed per day.

The last time the average was this high was 2001, the story points out, with prison numbers much higher, with an “average daily population [of] 14,192…36 inmates died in a year…That works out to a rate of 2.54 deaths per 1,000 detainees.”

Writer Rayman maintains “data about death rates in other U.S. prisons and lockups are difficult to find,” although a federal study noted “death rate in jails nationally from 2000 to 2019 was 1.42 per 1,000,” and the “death rate in New York City jails was slightly higher than the national average — 1.59 per 1,000.”

In 2019, this average was at a considerable low with “a death rate of 0.41 per 1,000 detainees.” All of these deaths occurred from natural causes.

Records from the Board of Correction records show that “445 detainees died in the jails from 2000 through 2022,” said the NY Daily News story, adding most of the deaths resulted from “natural or medical causes, including instances where medical care or emergency response was botched.”

Outside of these natural causes, other fatalities, the author writes, “53 suicides, 14 murders and 30 accidental deaths — most of those being overdoses.”

The racial demographics of these deaths are included in Rayman’s story from the records from the Board of Corrections, showing of all the deaths, “88 percent were listed as either Black or Hispanic…” and “forty-eight people listed as white and four people listed as Asian.”

These are disproportionate to the racial demographics of the city at large, explained the writer, where “Blacks and Hispanics make up 51 percent of the city’s population” and “whites make up 40 percent of the city population.” White deaths in jails are underrepresented, counting for only 11 percent.

The Jails Action Committee sees these increased death rates as proof of larger systemic issues, and believes that this evidence will “provide strong ammunition against Gov. Hochul’s plan to once again change the bail reform law.”

Hochul, said the NY Daily News, is seeking to improve on increased crime in the city, and has reportedly “proposed to remove language from the bail law requiring judges to consider the “least restrictive” method of ensuring people return for their court hearings in criminal cases.”

Another part of Hochul’s plan, as described by Rayman, includes different powers given to judicial authorities, such as how they “weigh a defendant’s ‘activities and history,’ past criminal convictions, past use or possession of a firearm as well as whether the charges include allegation of causing serious harm.” Judges can also set bail depending on the finances of the defendant.

Many advocates see Hochul’s plans as harmful, said the NY Daily News story, citing Melania Brown, the sibling of Layleen Polanco “who died of an untreated seizure in solitary confinement in 2019.”

Brown told the NY Daily News, “445 people are dead and counting, and the governor seriously wants to take us backwards.” She also questions, “How could we seriously be having a conversation about undoing the most basic protections in the law that have been around for decades?”

About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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