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Rikers Island Detainees Refusing Institutional Food To Protest Jail Conditions

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Detainees on Rikers Island are staging a protest, denying some food from the Department of Correction as means to bring attention to the deplorable and violent conditions in the jail.

This comes as new video emerges showing utter chaos behind bars.

As CBS2's Aundrea Cline-Thomas reports, surveillance video provided by the New York County Defender Services gives a glimpse inside what attorneys are calling "Fight Night" on Rikers Island.

Captured on Oct. 19, attorneys say a gang leader who runs the cell block taps two people to fight. The video shows a shirtless man getting hyped up before entering the cell.

Other detainees gather around as pure entertainment. The winner gets a cigarette.

It appears as though there was one correction officer in the area, a woman who first watches from afar before approaching the group alone. No one intervened.

"The federal government needs to come in and take over. It's as simple as that," said Christopher Boyle, with New York County Defender Services.

The unrest, many believe, is insurmountable after efforts for months to sound the alarm resulted in modest changes.

Thursday, advocates, attorneys and politicians gathered again at the entrance of the jail complex, this time standing in solidarity with detainees who are protesting jail conditions by refusing to eat institutional food and only eating what they purchase from the commissary.

"Of basic human rights. Of access to medical and mental health care. Of access to rec time," attorney Shekar Krishnan said.

Services that have been stopped or only now occur sporadically due to a COVID surge in the jail and continued staff shortages. This week, 2,100 correction officers are out sick.

While the Department of Correction said the detainees' actions are not considered a hunger strike, it's how Mayor Eric Adams explained it when asked about how DOC commissioner Louis Molina is responding.

"He met with the inmates and others to find out what the issues were and why they were on a hunger strike," Adams said.

"The department is in serious need of reform. Our staff and the people in our custody deserve dignity and safety," Molina said.

In a taped message last week, Molina pledged to make changes. Similar promises were made by those who came before him, but it's still unclear what, if anything, will be different this time.

In a statement, the correction officers' union called Thursday's rally a media stunt, adding, "The inmate advocates should have stood shoulder to shoulder with us for the past year as we vigorously fought to hire more officers."

Newly elected City Council members pledged to make Rikers a priority and provide more oversight.

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