Hunger strike by New York prison inmates

    HealthCOVID-19Hunger strike by New York prison inmates
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    Hunger strike by New York prison inmates

    Inmates complain of human rights abuse and indifference by prison officials regarding the risk of COVID-19, inadequate heating during winter, lack of proper hygiene and rising violence in the prison.

    As many as 200 prisoners held at the Rikers Island correctional institution (jail) went on a hunger strike on 8 January 2022, decrying their inhuman living conditions. They said they were hungry and cited cold temperatures, vermin infestations, filthy living spaces, rising violence inside the prison and lack of medical attention during the COVID-19 outbreak as the reasons for their protest. The virus sickened more than 370 inmates and has taken 15 lives thus far.

    Detainees have refused food to protest the deteriorating living conditions inside the prison complex.

    The inmates say they have been subject to deplorable living conditions and are demanding fulfilment of basic human rights – including access to medical care, clean living spaces, mental health support and working toilets.

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    An overwhelming majority of the detainees are being held in pre-trial detention, which is also common for most of the city’s prison systems. Data published by the Vera Institute for Justice from the New York City Open Data Website, 81.8 per cent of jailed people in the city happened to be pre-trial detained (as of October 8, 2021).

    The island houses some of the key prison complexes of New York City, with a combined capacity of holding anywhere between 10,000 to 15,000 detainees a day. But as the crises spiralled since the outbreak of the pandemic, the numbers have come down to about 5,400 prisoners.

    An array of abolitionists, legal activists and human rights organisations, including T’ruah, a Rabbinic Human Rights organisation and The Fortune Society have joined the cause of the prisoners. While some of the organisations are demanding improved living conditions, others believe the correctional facility should be shut down.

    Not the first protest

    According to creative commons platform, Peoples Dispatch, the prison complex has for long been ridden with issues such as staffing shortages, high levels of violence, and harsh living conditions. The pandemic only exacerbated the situation. “Despite early release of hundreds of inmates in 2020 and 2021 under consideration of the pandemic, thousands of unvaccinated and at-risk people continue to be admitted and detained in the island,” Peoples Dispatch said.

    NYC’s recently elected mayor Eric Adams is silent on the matter. The city administration’s department of corrections released a statement last week arguing that there was no hunger strike. It said that the detainees were only refusing food from services run by the department.

    This is not the first battle against inhumane living conditions in the Rikers Islands prison. Back in the 1980s, a dozen inmates voiced solidarity against the abominable treatment of people living with HIV/AIDS at the facility. While the country was focused on providing life-extending healthcare outside, the subhuman treatment inside Rikers Island was taking one life every two weeks. Akin to today, the correctional facility had failed to provide appropriate diet, prescribed medicines or even clean beds for the sick.


    Edited by Khushi Malhotra

    Image: Rikers Islands of Queens New York from Wikimedia
    Author Sfoskett

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