In wake of 1st inmate death at Rikers this year, activists call for facility’s closure and mass decarceration

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In response to the the death of an unidentified Rikers’ inmate on Sunday, many rallied for mass decarceration on Monday.
Photos Adrian Childress

In 2021, 16 New Yorkers died in Rikers Island as prison reform advocates continually shine a light on the lack of medical access available to prisoners inside the notorious facility. On Sunday, another inmate at the East River facility lost their life — the first inmate death this year — after being found unresponsive, city officials said.

The inmate, Tarz Youngblood, 38, had been on Rikers Island since Sept. 5 after being unable to make bail on a slew of charges, including stalking and assault, and was homeless prior to his sentence.

Monday brought a fervent protest to the prison gates as roughly 60 legal and community advocates called for the immediate release of detained Black and Latino New Yorkers — who disproportionately make up 90% of the city’s jail population — as a public health call for prisoners experiencing inhumane conditions at the well-documented facility.

Chants of “Shut it down!” reverberated through Monday’s protest outside the gates of the Rikers Island facility following the death of 38-year-old inmate Tarz Youngblood.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the inhumane conditions that have existed on Rikers Island for the past several decades. This says nothing of the physical, mental, and emotional traumas suffered by those detainees fortunate enough to survive their stay,” said Julia Jenkins, representative of Black Attorneys of Legal Aid Caucus. “How many more people must die before New York City’s leadership addresses this ongoing humanitarian crisis? Pre-trial detention should not be a death sentence. Release those detained, and close Rikers now.”

The call to close Rikers Island ratcheted up toward the tail-end of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tenure, and before his successor Eric Adams was elected in November 2021. Adams has said he would back his predecessor’s plan to close the notorious facility by 2027.

The annual cost of detaining someone on Rikers has soared to $447,000, and advocates note that those funds could be diverted back into communities who need it as a way to steer people away from crime.

Monday’s rally was lead by Olayemi Olurin, a public defender from the Legal Aid Society.

While activists at Monday’s rally called on local officials to take immediate action to reduce Riker’s population, the mayor urged lawmakers in February to toughen the state’s bail reform laws, including giving judges more discretion over who to lock up pre-trial.

State legislative leaders responded with a hard no, and activists state that Adams’ plans would “further empower judges to continue their unfair, biased practices that further entrench communities of color in the criminal legal system.”

“The humanitarian crisis at Rikers Island continues unabated, and the only solution is decarceration. We can no longer accept a system of injustice that lacks any accountability and puts Black and brown people in grave danger,” said Rashad Robinson, president of Color Of Change, a nonprofit civil rights advocacy group. We call on New York’s elected officials — starting with the city’s prosecutors — to address this ongoing disaster and immediately adopt a decarceration strategy.”

Reach Robbie Sequeira at rsequeira@schnepsmedia.com or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes. 

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