Protest held as New York City Council holds hearing on Rikers conditions

NEW YORK CITY (WABC) -- Before community leaders took to the stand to testify about conditions at Rikers Island, human rights advocates gathered outside City Hall to make sure their voices were heard.

"Rikers is a human slaughterhouse," said Melania Brown, sister of deceased inmate.

They are demanding change.

Brown joined former inmates, and other human rights advocates to protest conditions inside Rikers.

Her sister 27-year-old Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman, was being held at Riker's Island when she died suddenly in her cell in 2019.

"My sister was a human, she deserved to be here to be here today," Brown said. "They treated her worse than an animal."

According to officials, there have been at least 10 reported inmate deaths at Rikers this year.

"This is not okay!" Brown yelled at Republican Mayoral Candidate Curtis Sliwa.

She turned up the heat on Sliwa who was at City Hall to support correction officers.

"They are the ones being turned into villains," Sliwa said. "You can't deny evidence of correction officers being attacked."

He called for mentally ill inmates to be placed in a mental health facility.

A spokesperson for his opponent, Democrat Eric Adams, said in a statement:

"Eric believes the situation at Rikers is now a full-blown crisis that must be addressed with immediate investments in personnel and resources, as well as new policies that protect inmates and officers alike."

Exactly one week after a 7 On Your Side Investigation showed staff shortages led to an increase in violence and deteriorating conditions inside Rikers, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an emergency relief plan.

"We have a situation that is just not acceptable and has to change fundamentally," he said.

The Emergency Rikers Relief Plan includes the following:
--Adjust staffing at courts by shifting NYPD to help operate courts, allowing some Department of Correction (DOC) staff to shift back to duty on Rikers
--Toughen accountability for AWOL staffers with 30-day suspensions for Correction officers who do not show up to a post.
--Expand medical evaluation capacity for staff with additional medical providers to evaluate DOC officers for duty
--Engage in emergency contracting to quickly repair broken doors, clean facilities more efficiently, distribute commissary more quickly, scan mail onto tablets to reduce drugs entering facilities, and more
--Speed intake to reduce crowding with a goal of moving people through the intake process in 24 hours or fewer. Two currently closed clinic spaces will be opened to allow greater capacity

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Inside Rikers Island, there's an increase in violence, and it's not just attacks amongst inmates. Assaults against corrections officers are up by 23%.



The mayor also called for actions across the justice system in the following areas:

--Enacting the Less is More Act

--Speeding up transfers out of Rikers into state-operated locations in five days or less
--Calendaring 500 court cases immediately out of the 5,000 people on Rikers Island in pre-trial, including over 1,500 people have been held for over one year
--Encouraging judges to use supervised release for non-violent offenders, instead of pre-trial detention at Rikers

"It doesn't go far enough," a protestor said. "Their only solution is more correction officers and that's not the solution."

Those impacted by the violence, hold on to memories and the hope that change will come.

"She should be remembered as the free spirit she was," Brown said.

NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said officers will likely be on overtime while filling court duties so correction officers can focus on Rikers Island.

The city is hiring 600 new officers this fall but the union says they have lost that many officers due to resignations and retirements over the past few months.

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