Following the death of an inmate at the New York City jails system this week, health care workers and advocates said on Tuesday that they have been raising concerns about staffing levels and other safety issues at the overcrowded and violence-ridden facilities for years.
Tyrone Howard, 31, a 60-pound diabetic, was found unresponsive in his cell at the Rikers Island jail complex on Monday. Mr. Howard’s death on the weekend following President Trump’s visit to the island — where he was shown how his motorcade was diverted by nurses to an urgent-care clinic — has brought new scrutiny to what is already an under-resourced facility under intense scrutiny.
As Mr. Howard’s death raised new concerns, advocates argued that the president’s visit to the system was an opportunity to demand change.
“This is a very difficult year in Rikers,” Leslie Sims, president of the District Council 37 union of health care workers who have worked at Rikers since 1982, said. “Year after year, year after year, we are losing people. The situation is getting more urgent. We’re seeing more incidences, more violence, more deaths.”
The Department of Correction has been on an enrollment drive to reduce the population of inmates at Rikers to below 9,000, a number it argues has been too high for too long. To do that, officials have been opening up new jails and cutting programs, which have triggered a resistance among correction officers.
But advocates point to an under-resourced system as the reason for the increase in violence at Rikers. Mr. Howard’s death follows the death of a transgender woman at Rikers in July.
The advocacy group NYC Justice Coalition, a joint initiative between the New York Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times, organized a demonstration on Tuesday outside the Rikers entrance. After a lawsuit involving public records requests, the organization learned that Rikers had fallen to 335 in July, the fewest inmates housed on the island since 2003.
“While the numbers may be small, the system continues to be very, very dangerous,” said Michael Milewski, of NYC Justice Coalition. “In this terrible environment, we don’t have adequate staff. Correction officers don’t feel that they can do their jobs. We have serious problems with mental health care.”
“It’s just horrible conditions,” said Yakeeni Stevenson, a health services worker at Rikers. “We have guards on the rooftop doing surveillance on people in their cells. Who is monitoring the officers?”
At the moment, Rikers has between 5,700 and 6,000 inmates, depending on which organization collects numbers.
Correction officials have pointed to the increase in inmate numbers as an explanation for the number of incidences, or disturbances, they are required to report.
And under a plan started by Commissioner Joseph Ponte, the correction system is ramping up staffing and resources by issuing more correction officers and focusing on programs to prevent repeat violent behavior.