Rikers Island Inmate Calls In to Radio Show to Talk About Horrid Conditions

Nathaniel, an inmate at Rikers Island, called in to Brian Lehrer’s show on WNYC Tuesday to talk about the conditions at the notorious New York City jail.
September 30, 2021, 6:43pm
This Jan. 28, 2016 file photo shows a solitary confinement cell called "the bing," at New York's Rikers Island jail.
This Jan. 28, 2016 file photo shows a solitary confinement cell called "the bing," at New York's Rikers Island jail. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

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A man who says he’s currently incarcerated at New York City’s Rikers Island called in to a local radio show to talk about how bad the conditions have become over the last several months: declining supplies and cleanliness, a lack of medical care, and the consistent threat of COVID-19.

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“The only way you get a medical appointment is by laying on the floor, and they have to come get you in a stretcher. And they take their time to come and get you on a stretcher,” Nathaniel, who’s been incarcerated at the jail since January, told Brian Lehrer on his morning WNYC show Tuesday.

“We’ve had two times in nine months to get our linen changed,” he added.

Nathaniel’s call to Lehrer’s show comes as the problems at Rikers have ballooned from a local issue into one that national leaders in Washington, D.C., have begun to notice: They’re questioning city leadership on what they’ve done to address the monthslong issue and who should be held accountable.

Since the start of 2021, Rikers has been struggling with a rash of issues. COVID-19 has infected nearly 2,300 of the city’s Department of Corrections (DOC) employees so far and created a severe staffing shortage. At certain points over the summer, Rikers had as many as 2,000 employees calling out sick on a single day, according to the New York Times, though the DOC suspected that many of these employees were using the unlimited sick days granted to them as vacation time.

These staff shortages have severely hindered the jail’s ability to process new inmates and supply them with the necessary medical checkups, clothes, and placements within the facility. In some cases, processing procedures that once took no more than 24 hours have become weekslong ordeals.

Even basic necessities such as food, water, and medical attention, as well as PPE to prevent the spread of COVID-19, have become scarce. A total of 12 inmates have died in the facility, several by suicide, as a result of the neglect from jail guards and the growing atrocious conditions.

“We’ve been locked down in this house three times because of COVID,” Nathanial said on the radio Tuesday.

Nathaniel told Lehrer that the jail keeps trying to process more inmates, increasing the risk of COVID-19, even though jail staff has done little to treat those who are infected.

“I haven’t been on sick call in more than a month,” Nathaniel said, referring to the medical appointments that inmates are supposed to receive within a reasonable amount of time if they request one. 

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Cleanliness and hygiene at the jail have also deteriorated. Soap is rarely available, trash is strewn throughout the facility, nonfunctioning plumbing has left inmates to defecate and urinate in bags supplied by guards, and pests and vermin have infested drains and cells, according to outlets like CBS News and The Intercept. Earlier this month, a federal monitor reported that the jail is in a “state of emergency” and would require outside intervention to properly address its ongoing issues.

Nathaniel told Lehrer that he was locked up at Rikers after he ran from an armed off-duty cop not knowing that they were a member of law enforcement. The off-duty cop allegedly hurt himself while in pursuit and had been Nathaniel charged with assault as a result.

“I didn’t know he was an officer. It was 4 o’clock in the morning, and all I knew is somebody pulled out a gun, and I ran,” the caller explained live on air.

Now, Nathaniel can’t afford his $10,000 bail. (The city’s judges and prosecutors have continued to send people to jail for pre-trial detention despite deteriorating conditions, even if the accused is facing charges related to less-severe crimes.)

Several New York members of the House of Representatives, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have demanded that NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul step in to address what they call an “inhuman, unconstitutional” public health crisis.

“We, along with U.S. Reps. Jerry Nadler, Jamaal Bowman, and Nydia Velazquez, strongly believe that Rikers should be immediately decarcerated and shut down,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted last week.

Others have called on President Joe Biden and members of his administration to intervene.

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Gov. Hochul, just weeks into office, signed an executive order permitting virtual court hearings. She also signed legislation allowing some inmates to be detained at state facilities or released altogether for less severe crimes. 

But de Blasio’s handling of the crisis at Rikers has left local leaders and jail reform advocates furious, with some calling his recently unveiled five-point plan to fix the issues “unthoughtful,” according to the New York Times.

After weeks of public criticism over his failure to act, de Blasio finally visited Rikers for the first time since  2017 but reportedly failed to speak to any guards or inmates during his visit, according to the New York Post. When asked by reporters what part of the tour most upset him, he didn’t specify any of the issues he saw and wanted to address. 


It’s why Benny Boscio Jr., president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, told reporters outside the jail during the mayor’s visit that De Blasio took a “sugarcoated” visit, according to local news outlet The City.

Nathaniel told Lehrer the same on Tuesday.

“The conditions when the mayor did come over here yesterday, he didn’t come to the part where we live at,” he said. “He came to the part where they were just painting and trying to make it look good for the cameras.”