A Demand for Humanity: RJWG’s Statement in Solidarity with the Hunger Strikers on Rikers Island
Roughly 200 incarcerated men on Rikers Island have organized a hunger strike to protest inhumane conditions—including a lack of hot water, heat, and medical care in the midst of a pandemic. Here’s what you need to know, and how you can help.
The Racial Justice Working Group (RJWG) of NYC-DSA is in solidarity with the hunger strikers on Rikers Island. Roughly 200 incarcerated men at the Robert N. Davoren Complex (RNDC) organized a hunger strike and began refusing meals on January 7th in protest of conditions at the jail. Conditions at Rikers have always been inhumane, and have become exponentially worse as the city’s response to the pandemic left our most vulnerable behind. In the past year, 15 people have died on Rikers Island, while countless more continue to suffer serious illness and mental health issues exacerbated by nonexistent or inconsistent access to medications and care.
The hunger strikers at RNDC have demanded immediate action to address lack of medical and mental health care, unhygienic conditions, no access to hot water, increasing violence, lack of access to mail, and their inability to go outdoors and breathe fresh air for weeks. While jail officials have taken away their outdoor access, those incarcerated on Rikers still have to deal with the freezing temperatures inside, as the facility has inadequate heat for the winter.
Conditions have been exacerbated by the newly-appointed Department of Corrections (DOC) Commissioner Louis Molina — described as a “former Las Vegas jails boss.” In one of his first actions as DOC Commissioner, Molina fired city jails investigator Sarena Townsend for refusing to toss thousands of use-of-force complaints against DOC staff.
While the pandemic has certainly worsened conditions at Rikers, the cruelty of prisons and jails has been an intentional feature of jails and prisons — and is not specific to Rikers alone. The carceral system simply does not keep anyone safe. Instead, it perpetuates race and class-based oppression, poverty, disenfranchisement, and social fragmentation — systematically directed at Black and brown communities. The plan to build new jails to replace Rikers is an investment in a future of incarcerating and marginalizing working class New Yorkers. Rikers itself was billed as a reform to the City’s old, “inhumane” jails, yet the conditions that prompted this hunger strike show us that the problem of the jail isn’t going to be solved by transplanting it to a new building.
Public funds are sustaining carceral institutions that are intrinsically violent, traumatic, and disruptive. RJWG believes that the $8.7 billion in funds allocated to building four new borough based jails should instead be invested in disinvested communities to create conditions that support an abolitionist future — such as safe, affordable housing, free public education, a clean environment, affordable healthy food, and access to holistic medical and mental health care. A future that is built around these critical priorities would not only be safer, but more just, equitable, and livable.
- Meet all demands of the hunger strikers! Provide full access to mail, mental health, medical care, the law library, and recreation
- Immediately release all people held at Rikers Island, and provide immediate reentry support for those who are released and their families
- District Attorneys (DAs) must immediately release people detained pretrial, and stop asking for bail
- Judges must stop granting bail applications
- No new jails! Invest those funds into community needs
What you can do:
- Join HALTsolitary & NYC Jails Action Coalition’s Rally to Stop the Deadly Crisis of New York City Jails: Thursday, January 20th at 12:30 pm, beginning outside City Hall at the Broadway ent: (Outside City Hall, at the Broadway entrance)
- Support the hunger strikers by donating to Covid Bail Out NYC, which provides community bailouts from NYC jails: https://donorbox.org/covid-bail-out-nyc
- Join the phone zap by Eyes on You in support of the hunger strikers! Contact Director of CHS Ross MacDonald (646–614–0075), and Commissioner Molina’s Executive Assistant Diane Davila (718–548–0897). Use the script below:
I am calling in support of the demands of the 200 hunger strikers on Rikers Island. We demand that you immediately:
- Let people come off lockdown; it’s not keeping them safe.
- Resume legal visits, phone calls, access to the law library, commissary, and recreation immediately.
- Resume medical and mental health care immediately.
- Ensure people can attend their court dates and legal visits 100% of the time.
We also demand the immediate release of all incarcerated individuals, as the Department of Corrections is unable to keep people alive. Pending this action, we are demanding that Eyes on You, an independent committee of community members and medical workers, be permitted immediate entry to assess and triage hunger strikers.
About the Racial Justice Working Group: The Racial Justice Working Group (RJWG) is currently working to #DefundNYPD. It is a campaign working group led by NYC-DSA, a local branch of the National Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). They are the largest leftist organization in the United States — and support the people’s demand to defund the police and abolish the prison industrial complex. DSA works collaboratively with labor unions and grassroots organizations to build a mass, multiracial, democratic abolitionist movement.