Rikers Island's Deadliest Year with Olayemi Olurin | Rattling the Bars

Editor’s note: This interview was filmed on Dec. 1, 2022. A 19th person, Edgardo Mejia, died at Rikers on Sunday, Dec. 11. 

19 people have perished at Rikers Island in 2022, making this the deadliest year in the jail’s history. Rikers Island’s previous deadliest year was just last year, when 16 people died at the notorious pretrial detention center. NYC Mayor Eric Adams has rejected calls to close the facility, along with demands from advocates for a federal receivership. A federal receivership would give power to a court-appointed, nonpartisan expert to intervene in the situation on Rikers with wide latitude to change conditions in the jail. New York public defender Olayemi Olurin joins Rattling the Bars to discuss the human rights crisis on Rikers Island. 

Olayemi Olurin is a public defender and staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society and an analyst at the Law & Crime Network and The Hill’s Rising.

Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Transcript

Mansa Musa:  Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Mansa Musa, co-host with Eddie Conway. And as I always do, I always update everyone on Eddie Conway, and hopefully at some point in time, Eddie Conway will be making a cameo appearance on this network that he loved and his program that he created, and we look forward to that.

Today, we have no stranger to Rattling the Bars. An extraordinary Black woman who’s well versed on all things civil, all things human rights, all things activist. Introduce yourself to Rattling the Bars, Olayemi.

Olayemi Olurin:  Thank you for having me. Hi, my name is Olayemi Olurin, and you can call me Olay. I am a movement lawyer and a political commentator.

Mansa Musa:  Okay. And very astute at both. All right. So today, we are going to be talking about Rikers Island. And for most of us that don’t know where Rikers Island’s at, Rikers Island is in New York. But more importantly, Rikers Island is a jail. It’s not a prison, it’s a detention center. But Rikers Island has the same characteristics and the same sense of inhumanity that a concentration camp had. And here today to talk about some of the things going on in Rikers Island is Olayemi, Olay.

Now, recently a report came out, somebody smuggled some pictures out of the jail of men that were being held in the holding cells without a toilet and without facilities, and because they were being held in there so long, they started defecating on themselves or they just started pulling their pants down and defecating in any area that they could find, as opposed to defecating on themself. This is just one of the things that shocked the consciousness of the city to make the city come to grips with oh, we have to do something about Rikers Island.

But more importantly, Rikers Island has done a consent decree, a court order to change the conditions that has existed since 2015. Recently, the court judge held a hearing on the violation of the consent decree for the umpteenth time. And in regard to what should be done, he gave the Department of Correction an extension to come up with a solution or try to honor the terms of the consent decree. Olay, talk about what’s going on with Rikers Island.

Olayemi Olurin:  Okay, so Rikers Island is a place whose infamy precedes it and actually works against it. Because Rikers is so infamous, people often make the mistake of thinking it’s this high security prison for big bad people accused of the worst things when in actuality Rikers is a pretrial detention center, and it’s been open since 1932 in New York City. But it was last year that they declared a human rights crisis when 16 deaths occurred last year, and that was the highest death toll since 2013.

This year, we’re already at 18. So it’s worse than when we recognized it as a human rights crisis, but yet, we’ve failed so far to get them to make the necessary interventions. Rikers has been under federal monitor since 2015, where Judge T. Swain regularly has periodic updates and issues mandates, dictates to them to do certain things. And each and every time, they find that they have demonstrably failed to be in compliance with any of them. Earlier this year, they’d found that more than 12,000 medical appointments had been missed. So that’s why you see so many people dying from medical neglect at Rikers.

So what advocates have been pushing for in the last two years very heavily is a federal receivership. So a federal receivership doesn’t mean the federal government would take over, despite what the name sounds like. A receivership would mean that the judge would’ve appointed a nonpartisan expert who would be able to come in, they would be agreed upon by both sides. They would come in as a temporary measure where they would be given wide latitude to be able to do away with some of the barriers and union and state constraints that some of these other personnel that are already existing under so that they could get it in Constitutional compliance. And once that happens, it would automatically revert back to the states.

But nonetheless, at the last hearing for it, the judge still made an opportunity to give them more time extended yet again, which they’ve continued to do. They continue to extend it. And every time, after every single extension, people die. There can’t be anything more grave to show us that it’s not working than people dying. I don’t know what else would possibly show them.

Mansa Musa:  Right. And in that regard, to expand on that concept, the fact that it’s under consent decree, the fact that the court has already found that human rights violations exist, Eighth Amendment violations exists, and the fact that this is ongoing, why do you think that the courts are reluctant to turn it over to a more stringent oversight as opposed to continue to let, for lack better word, the fox remain in the chicken coop?

Olayemi Olurin:  It’s at best, it’s politics. At worst, it’s depraved indifference to what’s happening. At the worst it’s set, they’re okay with what’s happening, and I think that’s a fair conclusion to arrive at if every single time we have one of these hearings, every time we have an update, more people are dead and you’re still saying that’s not enough, let’s continue to extend and give them more opportunity. So it’s that.

Or it’s that they don’t want to be seen as an enemy of Eric Adams and the Commissioner of Rikers and these people that are pushing to keep it this way. Because despite the fact that there’s been a campaign to close Rikers since 2016 and Eric Adams himself said that he would get on board with the campaign to close Rikers because he recognizes that Rikers needs systemic change. He said that Rikers was completely out of control when it was under de Blasio. We’re at more deaths, and yet he opposes. He has expressed skepticism that they can actually close Rikers, because he says the Rikers population is too high, which is also a reflection of him pushing back against bail reform and every effort made to decarcerate it. But now he’s using that as a self-fulfilling prophecy for why he doesn’t want to close Rikers, why he doesn’t want to decarcerate Rikers, and why he doesn’t want a receivership. So I think there are a lot of political things happening behind the scenes that make people not want to be in opposition with the mayor.

Mansa Musa:  And then the latest developments, and they just had a hearing I think last week or this past –

Olayemi Olurin:  Nov. 17.

Mansa Musa:  The latest developments, and this is beyond my imagination, is that you want them to do a study or submit a report on the lack of compliance with or your expectation of what’s to come. And at the same token, you want to do a study on what’s going on and you don’t want to make it public because you’re saying that you don’t want it to be misconstrued or not adequately interpreted. But to your point, what is more adequate evidentiary-wise than the deaths? Speak on this. And why do you think they’re taking this position of keeping this… If it’s becoming the public domain, it is going to be subjected to ultimately being seen by the public –

Olayemi Olurin:  For the same –

Mansa Musa:  Why do you think they’re reluctant?

Olayemi Olurin:  For the same reason that they put jails at a site where they make it economically unfeasible for us to get the jails. The same reason they make it difficult to enter jails, to visit your family and your loved ones. For the same reason they don’t want incarcerated people to be able to call us conveniently or record or have phones or have any ability to tell us what’s happening inside. For the same reason that the courts are open to the public but yet we’re not allowed to record what happens there. Because they know if the public knew how these systems actually worked, if they knew what was happening in Rikers, they wouldn’t support it. It’s that simple.

It’s the reason why when we put out those photos, we immediately see backlash. You see them get out and say, oh, we’re shocked, or, we don’t know how this is happening. And they try to distance themselves from something that they already know, every actor involved knows what’s happening each and every day. And it’s because if the public saw what this pretrial detention center was doing in Rikers, if they saw what it looked like, what the people were being subjected to, if they saw what people were there in a city of 10 million people, 42% of whom are white, why is this pretrial detention center filled if 90% Black and Brown people? If people could see that, if they got the numbers, if they actually heard the horror stories, they wouldn’t go for the lies and the excuses and the placating that they’ve been giving us thus far to continue out this practice.

Mansa Musa:  And let’s explore, examine… Because you made mention a bit earlier about this misnomer that Rikers is the new Alcatraz. There’s maximum security, a supermax type prison. But talk about the difference between a detention center and a maximum security facility, and juxtapose those two things for us.

Olayemi Olurin:  So something people don’t realize, there’s a difference between jails and prisons despite the fact that we use the words interchangeably. But jails are where people haven’t been convicted of crimes, that’s where people are being held. Rikers is a pretrial detention center, a jail. Meaning at Rikers in specific, over 85% of the people incarcerated at Rikers have not been convicted of a crime, have not had a trial. Versus a prison, you’re at a prison, you’re incarcerated at a prison when you have been convicted of a crime. So that is the difference between the two.

Mansa Musa:  And now in regard to that, we find ourselves in a situation where men and women are being held in pretrial detention in the most horrendous conditions, which automatically open the doors up for them to take a plea agreement or up for minor charges just to get out of Rikers. What’s the average amount of time a pretrial detainee stays in Rikers before they go to court? Do you know?

Olayemi Olurin:  They spend years in Rikers. Over a year is probably the average time a person is spending in Rikers, because that’s how long cases… The funny thing about the criminal system is that most cases never see trial ever, at all. They never see trial, they never see hearings, they’re resolved some other way. But if you have the ability to hold somebody in jail until they have a trial, then you have the ability to carry out and prosecute a case and carry it out longer and make someone feel pressured to take a plea or to resolve a case in a criminal way that they otherwise wouldn’t have because you wouldn’t have been able to do it had they been out. So that’s the way that they use it. They weaponize it against people.

And the interesting thing is, America has the largest prison population in the world. It makes up 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s incarcerated population because about two million people are incarcerated in America. But of those two million, 400,000 of those people are being held pretrial. And that’s something we don’t realize that much. Over 400,000 people who have been accused of a crime, who are legally presumed innocent, who have not had a hearing or trial, but yet they’ve had their freedom restricted. And as much as what’s happening at Rikers is a crisis, it’s emblematic of what’s happening at all of these pretrial detention centers all around the country.

Mansa Musa:  And that’s true, because we did a report in the South, they’re outsourcing the detention centers and the population for work almost like Black Code. They’re using their labor to beef up these rural counties that are losing prisons.

But talk about the mayor. Here’s a quote from the mayor. He said, “I’m a bit baffled about people who think that the federal receivership of oversight is the end all,” the mayor. “Are the federal prisons and those the poster child of good prisons?” So he’s basically saying that he’s opposed to it, but then in the same voice, he got this misconception that you’re dealing with a prison as opposed to an institution that’s supposed to be transitory. Because if you don’t have but for bail reform, but for the fact that a person can’t make bail, then you wouldn’t have the population you have right now in Rikers. But the fact that you don’t have a person’s inability to make bail, but then you turn around and you are one link in a continuous link of mayors that are responsible for the dehumanization that’s taking place on record. Speak about the mayor.

Olayemi Olurin:  It’s often unclear whether or not Eric Adams is genuinely uninformed or whether or not he’s deliberately making a strawman argument to the public. And I would hope it’s that he is not deliberately uninformed, because that would just show depraved indifference, because the information has been made available to him in a massive way.

But a federal receivership is not the federal government taking over. And he must know that. But he wants to present it to the public that way. The federal government would not be taking over. The federal government would not be who would be in charge or be leading oversight of Rikers under a federal receivership, that’s just the name. But importantly, even if it were, Rikers is already under federal monitor. It’s been under federal monitor.

So that’s immaterial. It’s neither here nor there. He’s presenting this problem to the public. But regardless, a federal receivership does not put the federal government in charge. What it actually does is allow a nonpartisan expert that both sides choose to come and do oversight. And it’s temporary. No one has ever presented a federal receivership as the end all be all. That’s quite frankly precisely what it’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to be a temporary measure and eventually the power would revert back to the state. And I want to remind Eric Adams and the public that Rikers is allegedly supposed to be closed by 2026. They said their delay is till 2027. So a federal receivership and all the other efforts meant to help decarcerate Rikers are supposed to move us along to an end, a stated goal our own mayor has purported to support. So what Eric Adams is saying is nonsensical, as it usually is.

Mansa Musa:  And then right there, let’s pick up right there. The mandate that this decadent, inhumane cesspool is going to be closed in ’27 then, all right, why are we at this stage right now when we know we have… Well, we have a monitor. The monitor has been there since the consent decree came out in 2015. And the purpose of the monitor, and you can take this further, the purpose of the monitor is to monitor whether or not the terms of the consent decree are actually being implemented.

Olayemi Olurin:  Absolutely.

Mansa Musa:  So then the terms of the consent decree, and I was in the Maryland prison system, and we had a consent decree where it reduced the population, and in lieu of reducing the population, certain things were supposed to take place. When those things didn’t take place, we filed a motion to enforce the consent decree, which got us back in court.

All right. Talk about the relationship between the monitor and the fact that, what is the monitor doing? Does the monitor sleep on the job? Was he not monitoring? Why are we having 18 deaths? Why are we having the same conditions they sued about? Why are we having this conversation about giving them an extension on something that’s already been resolved?

Olayemi Olurin:  Honestly, it’s a reflection of the unfortunate truth about our entire criminal system. Laws only matter if they’re enforced and who they’re enforced against. And it’s the same way that murder is illegal but police kill people every day and all these different things, and we know it and we see it in some video, but they don’t enforce it. So it’s like the monitor is there monitoring the situation at Rikers. We’re not unaware. We know it’s happening. Every time, the monitor’s giving the update, like, hey, nobody is complying. Worse than the last times. 18 deaths since the last time. They’re just choosing to continue to do nothing.

Mansa Musa:  Yeah. And really the reality is, like you say, it’s the monetization of Rickers. And then, that’s really the reality. The deliberate indifference too.

But then let’s examine the other part of the equation. Then you have the officers, they didn’t up the brutality.

Olayemi Olurin:  Absolutely.

Mansa Musa:  They didn’t up the debauchery. Inside, they’re stressed out, they’re traumatized. And yet where is their union at in terms of saying like, man, get me the hell up out of here.

Olayemi Olurin:  And here’s the thing about the Department of Corrections. The Department of Corrections has perpetuated this myth that they’re understaffed as a means of justifying the abuse and the neglect happening at Rikers and as a means of centering themselves as the people who need more help or need more resources. But let me tell you what’s actually happening.

Mansa Musa:  Come on.

Olayemi Olurin:  First of all, we have about 5,000 people incarcerated at Rikers. Rikers is a facility only built to hold 3,000 people, but we have about 5,000 people there. Nonetheless, we have more than 7,000 officers. We have way more, literally thousands more corrections officers than we have incarcerated people at Rikers. And they are taking illegal sick outs. This is what’s important. People keep saying, oh, the officers are calling out sick. Right, right. But they’re not. They’re abusing their union contract and they’re abusing the existing protocols in order to call out sick, to continue to get paid, and to make the incarcerated people at Rikers suffer for it, and then to now call for more resources.

So this situation with the corrections officers is self made. They are manipulating and abusing the system to their advantage so that they can get more. It’s not a coincidence that while all the budgets are being cut, NYPD still got more and Rikers has still got more. NYPD gets about $10.4 billion and Rikers gets about $860 million. All of those numbers were increased under Eric Adams even though we cut everywhere else. But they are using these myths that they propagate in order to do it when these illegal sick outs are a reflection of the fact that we need a receivership.

Because like I said, they don’t actually have the ability. The state municipalities have their hands tied. They’re tied between these union contracts and all these other political arrangements, agreements that have existed. But a nonpartisan expert under a federal receivership would not be bound by that, and they would be able to fire these officers. They would be able to hire new people. They would be able to get all these resources, locks. They have people being held in shower stalls at Rikers where they can’t get locks on cells, exposing people to more danger and all these different things. A federal receivership would be able to come in and do something about that. But these corrections officers ain’t nothing wrong with them other than they are neglectful, depraved, and that’s what it is.

Mansa Musa:  And I’m reminded of a case, [inaudible] that came up with the case that started the adjustment procedure. And Thurgood Marshall said, in the opinion said, it’s no iron curtain between the Constitutional rights of prisoners and prisons. It’s no iron curtain. But the way I’m seeing Rikers and the fact that it’s been like this for going on a century, the fact that it’s been the most depraved institution on the East Coast, probably, is that it is an iron curtain between prisoners and the Constitution.

Because a consent decree came out, Eighth Amendment violations, cruel and unusual punishment, 14th Amendment violations, no due process, a whole host of medical problems. And yet the very court that’s responsible for overseeing and ensuring that our rights are adhered to is postulating and act wrestling and really doing nothing, [inaudible]. Speak on that.

Olayemi Olurin:  Because honestly, people don’t want you to arrive at the logical conclusion, but the logical conclusion is that they’re okay with what’s happening. They have the ability, they’re in charge of overseeing it, they’re aware of the information, they have the ability to do something about it, and they refuse to do it. And maybe that’s harder to believe if you think, oh, it’s just Rikers, and then Rikers seems like a standalone, inherent, abhorrent ideation of the system, and that’s why this is happening. And they don’t know what to do about it.

But then you think about it like this and you think, all right, Rikers is infamous, and you think Rikers is one of the worst places on earth, it’s a human rights crisis, it’s so bad. And then you realize that hey, in Harris County, 21 people died. Everything that’s happened in Rikers, it’s happened in Harris County. It’s happened in Cook County, it’s happened in LA, it’s happened in all these urban places where despite these large white populations they have filled Black and Brown jails. And then it lets you realize, hey, actually this is the way that our system is operating on purpose.

Mansa Musa:  And me and Max were talking about this, and we came to the conclusion that we know it’s a gladiator school. We know it is dangerous, but it’s to our advantage to leave it like that because it keeps us employed, it keeps us being able to siphon off money from in the budget for much needed things like school, education, and housing and give it to the unions and give it to contractors that are responsible for maintaining the inhumanity that exists in Rickers.

Olay, you got the last word on this here. But before you say that, talk about what are some of the things that the movement is doing or the community is doing. Because we didn’t explore that. Anything that you know of.

Olayemi Olurin:  Listen, there is a collective effort. There is a collective effort because Rikers is a part of the shared reality of Black and Brown New Yorkers. That’s just the reality. No matter how much we’re talking about it, Rikers and NYPD and the criminalization of Black and Brown New Yorkers is ever present. So like you said, Rikers has existed for almost a century. So nothing that we’re advocating for now is new. There’ve always been community advocates making us aware of this situation and what needs to be done. It’s just about how much national attention we’re able to get to it.

Because this is the thing, people forget. Awareness isn’t for the people that are perpetuating the injustices. They know. Awareness is for the public, because the people perpetuating the injustices only care about what the public is going to have a problem with because that’s how they maintain their power.

So for us, at this point, what we’re trying to do is they know what’s happening there. They know, they know. Maybe once upon a time they could pretend that they didn’t know. The judges don’t go there, they don’t see it. But we know now. We have pictures, we have monitors, we have evidence, we have the stats, everything has made it abundantly clear. So where we’re at right now is trying to expose it to the public, trying to get the public to get behind it. Because there’s a reason why now we’ve been talking about receivership. Receivership, we’ve been fighting for that. I’ve been fighting for that since last year. Advocates. And at one point in time, no one had ever heard about it.

So now, even though he’s lying about it, he’s forced to address it, Eric Adams. Now you get the national attention, mobilize around it. And when you show people, hey, look at the pictures. Look at these pictures, what we found. Look at these monitors, look at these stories. So what we’re doing as a community, as advocates, as organizers, is trying to get the word out about what the reality is of Rikers and what can be done. Because oftentimes people feel like, whoa, that’s so sad. And what can I do? And they feel their hand shackle when they think, oh, close Rikers, they can’t do anything to get it closed today. But a receivership, these different efforts, decarcerating, supporting bail reform, that’s how we decarcerate Rikers and that’s how we get us to closing Rikers. So right now, that’s what we’re doing on the ground.

Mansa Musa:  Okay. And that’s a good way to end this. Because we recognize that, and you made this observation, that throughout the United States, the prison-industrial complex is multifaceted. But in this whole conversation, the detention centers represent a part of this prison-industrial complex that is the most inhumane and brutal because a person is innocent till proven guilty. And only why a person is in a detention center is because they can’t pay bail, in most cases. Not because of the crime they committed, but because they can’t post bail. 

Because they’re poor Black or poor Brown or poor period and can’t afford it. But that’s our reality.

And we’re advocating that they close Rikers. We’re advocating that the things that you just outlined, bail reform, we’re advocating that this monitor, that they replace him or get somebody else in their place so that we can stop having this conversation about people dying in Rikers.

Thank you, Olay, for joining us and educating our audience about what is going on in Rikers. And we pray and hope that at the end of the day that everybody comes to the realization that Angela Davis says, if they come for me in the morning, they’re going to come for you sooner or later. So don’t be in the sooner or later narrative. Stand up and speak out. Thank you very much.

Olayemi Olurin:  Thank you.

Mansa Musa:  And we’d like to encourage everyone to continue to support Rattling the Bars and The Real News. As you can see, this is really the real news. You are not getting this kind of information about Rikers Island or the abuse and inhumanity is taking place in a county jail, not a prison, not where somebody has been convicted and serving his time, but somebody’s waiting to go to trial and could possibly be found not guilty, but in the course of being found not guilty, could actually be executed by someone in the prison or by a officer. Thank you very much, Olay.

Olayemi Olurin:  Thank you.

Mansa Musa

Mansa Musa, also known as Charles Hopkins, is a 70-year-old social activist and former Black Panther. He was released from prison on December 5, 2019, after serving 48 years, nine months, 5 days, 16 hours, 10 minutes. He co-hosts the TRNN original show Rattling the Bars.