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Cockroaches, rotting food and garbage: Lawmakers say Rikers Island jail conditions are a "public health issue"

Lawmakers report awful conditions at Rikers Island
New York lawmakers describe deteriorating conditions at Rikers Island jail 10:16

New York State lawmakers are calling for greater criminal justice reform amid "an absolute humanitarian crisis" at Rikers Island jail complex. The ten facilities situated in the East River near New York City are scheduled to close by 2027, putting an end to some of its longstanding issues of violence and neglect.

"The place is in a state of emergency, and we need to act now," New York State Assembly Member Jessica González-Rojas told CBS News' Lana Zak on Thursday. "We must work to decarcerate."

While touring the island's facilities, González-Rojas said she saw garbage spewed across the floor, cockroaches and rotting food. She said inmates were piled on top of one another, and some had no access to showers or clothing. She added that she stepped over urine and even witnessed a suicide attempt at the jail.

"It is in a complete state of disarray," González-Rojas said. 

New York State Senator Jabari Brisport told CBS News that some Rikers inmates are kept in "cages" while awaiting trial. "They have been given a bag to urinate and defecate in because there is no toilet in the room with them," he said.

Some of their offenses include missing a curfew under parole, González-Rojas added.

"In one of the intake facilities that is so overcrowded, they have been staying in rooms without bathrooms," Brisport said. "Usually they would be in there a few hours. Some have been in there for days."

Rikers Island jail complex, which has 10,000 beds, has been plagued with problems for years. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson described the facility as "a symbol of brutality and inhumanity."

Rikers Island Coronavirus Outbreak COVID-19
This undated photo shows the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City. Seth Wenig / AP

González-Rojas said COVID-19 has exacerbated existing issues, calling the jail's crisis a "public health issue."

She said overcrowding is a driving factor in the facility's deteriorating conditions. 

"This is not an understaffing problem, but a mass incarceration problem," she said. "We are sending too many people into that place."

This week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an emergency order to address the jail's overcrowding. His Emergency Rikers Relief Plan aims to adjust staffing at courts, strengthen accountability for staffers, expand medical evaluation capacity for staff, engage in emergency contracting and speed up intake.

"We will uphold our obligation to provide a safe, clean environment on Rikers Island while pivoting to a fairer and more humane justice system," the mayor said in a statement Tuesday. 

Brisport said the plan still isn't enough. 

He and González-Rojas urged New York Governor Kathy Hochul to adopt the Less is More Act to address the facility's overpopulation. The legislation has been passed by the state assembly and the state senate and would release those who are incarcerated on minor technical parole violations should the governor sign it. 

"No one deserves to be in these conditions," González-Rojas said. "But certainly we can reduce the population immediately." 

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