Inmates on Rikers Island are Fighting for Soap: How to Show Solidarity and Prevent Corona’s Spread

You can't practice social distancing in jail.

Amba Guerguerian Mar 26, 2020

On Sunday, inmates at two dormitories on Rikers Island funneled out a statement announcing they would abstain from working and eating in protest of sordid conditions and a lack of personal protective supplies in the face of the coronavirus outbreak. 

The inmates said that they were acting in solidarity with hunger strikers at Hudson County Jail, in New Jersey, where there have been at least two other prisoner-led hunger strikes in the state. By Tuesday, with Rikers inmates having received cleaning supplies and some individuals having been told they would be released, the mini-strike was over. But many prisoners and their supporters, say more needs to be done to prevent the spread of the virus that has so far infected 35 people at the prison complex.  

Yesterday, The Indypendent spoke with Gerald Koch, a prisoner advocate and member of MACC, the Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council. Koch is a former-prisoner himself, having been jailed for eight months after refusing to testify in a grand jury investigation related to a 2008 blast at a military recruitment center in Times Square. 

Though information from inside Rikers is hard to come by, Koch has contacts inside the prison. We discussed the situation on the island and what those of us on the outside can do to support prisoners amid the pandemic.

As you understand it, what are conditions at Rikers like right now? 

They’ve been cutting off the phones, which is a common tactic to use when people inside are organizing. They don’t want information to leak to the outer world. This way they can maintain a much nicer and prettier picture about what’s going on behind those walls than the reality. There are almost certainly far more people inside with coronavirus than has been announced. The conditions, as always, are much worse than the official description. 

‘The strikes are an inspiring example of folks who are locked up self-organizing, fighting for their health in the face of overwhelming cruelty.’

While they might say that they’re taking the appropriate social-distancing measures, and supplying everything that the employees of the Department of Correction and the folks locked up might need, that’s far from the truth. Folks inside have had to stash cleaning supplies, because they are not receiving enough. They’ve had to organize their own cleaning crews because the DOC has ignored all of their requests for more cleaning supplies. We’re not talking about a huge demand here. We’re talking about, “Please give us some more soap and sponges so that we can do your own damn job for you.” 

They’ve taken cleaning upon themselves because of the squalid conditions.

The DOC has to ensure that the facilities are clean, and sometimes that can be part of a person’s sentence, but they actually stopped doing that recently, as the coronavirus spread, which seems counter-intuitive. 

We’re hearing from two dorms that are striking. Do you know why it’s these dorms in particular?

It’s important to contextualize this with the fact that we just know of two units that are striking on Rikers. It could be much more than that because communication is so difficult. The fact that we’ve heard about it in a couple of facilities means that it’s probably happening in a lot more places. The truth of the matter is that the folks inside, if we don’t advocate for them and fight for them to be heard, and to be treated right, and come home, are going to be left to suffer and to rot by the DOC and the statewide Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. 

The strikes are an inspiring example of folks who are locked up self-organizing and fighting for their own health and wellbeing in the face of overwhelming cruelty or at least vindictive apathy, to put it in the friendliest possible terms, on the DOC’s part.

No one’s going to admit that there’s any kind of organizing inside until they absolutely have to. That’s how the criminal-industrial-complex at large deals with these things. It’s actually a very high-level penalty for organizing. You can be sent into solitary for it, sometimes even catch new charges for it. 

These prisoners earn on average $.65 an hour.

Upstate, which is where our lovely New York-branded hand sanitizer is made in our lovely prison colonies, it’s often a lot less. And none of the prisoners can have the hand sanitizer, because it’s contraband. It’s kind of exactly like old-school colonialism. You just extract the resource from the colony and deny it to them. 

Prisoners are being told to follow all these precautionary measures that we’re taking on the outside, but can they follow any of them?

You physically can’t put six feet of space between people. You can’t use hand sanitizer, and you have few toilets and one shower for 52 guys in a room. Does it sound like you’re going to be able to do social distancing? They’re having to argue to get soap. In one of the units, all they had was two sponges. 

The head doctor on Rikers said that there’s no way to do these kinds of sanitary protocols in jail, that you have to let these folks go. This isn’t solely an outside call. People from within the prison systems are saying this.

And the risk is already high for folks in these dorms because most of them have interacted with people that are sick.

Right. Just the other day, incarcerated folks tried to go to the medical unit to get tested, and got pepper-sprayed. This is insanity. All incarcerated folks are saying is, “We don’t want to spread this. We think we might be sick. Can we just get a test, let alone even proper treatment and care?” The DOC responds by brutalizing them and pepper-spraying them. Then, to the public, it says, “Oh, no, no, we’re trying to let people out.”

At the same time, as far as the DOC goes, we’re hearing that they are warning the state of the poor conditions and suggesting they release people. How does that fall into the picture? Is that just their way of side-stepping blame?

That’s usually a safe assumption when it comes to the DOC. They have a lot more power than they’re normally willing to admit. If they really wanted to pressure the mayor, and say, “Hey look, these people need to be let go,” then they would be able to do that. Obviously, they would need to work with the mayor’s office, but it’s really easy for the DOC and the mayor’s office, and the different DA offices to all just point fingers at each other, and say, “It’s their fault” or “They have to approve it.” 

We need to be skeptical of all of these authorities when they say that they’re trying to help people. If they put a modicum of the amount of effort they expend making themselves look good into actually trying to help, then a lot more people would be coming home right now. 

You’re doubtful that people are going to be released in any sort of effective manner. 

I think they’re going to release a comparatively small amount of people in order to look good and get their nice progressive talking points in order — just enough to indicate that they did something, but not anymore than the bare minimum. It’s worth emphasizing that Mayor Bill de Blasio really could release people. He actually does have the power to do this. He and Cuomo both have huge amounts of power over this situation.

Organizations like the Legal Aid Society have done a really good job of pushing for it publicly, but the mayor has washed his hands of it. That’s the kind of disdain for incarcerated folks that we are seeing here, and that’s going to continue to hurt people as this virus spreads. The terrible irony is that it’s going to spread through Rikers and then come back through those walls, as long as corrections officers come in and out. 

We’ve heard of numbers of COs dropping, as a result of this pandemic, despite there already being a shortage.

One corrections officer has already died and a number have contracted coronavirus, so we’re going to see more who don’t want to show up to work. As the COs get more worried about this, they’re just gonna lock people in and pretty much leave them to their own devices. That’s what we’ve already seen and what we’ve already heard from inside. COs wear masks and gloves when they can get them, but the medical quarantine unit, as far as I understand it, is already full. 

The virus is going to tear through these facilities. Anyone who has had any interaction with the criminal legal system knows that. There’s no pretending otherwise and anyone who says anything other than that isn’t acting in good faith. We already have a huge chunk of the country on lockdown, but there are also segments of the population that, because we traditionally ignore and isolate and marginalize them, are going to be breeding grounds, that are going to bring that same virus back to the supposedly safe, locked down, wealthier parts of society. 

How can our readers support people locked up right now? 

I recommend that people follow or look up No New Jails, the Release Aging People in Prison campaign, the Parole Preparation Project and the MACC. These are some of the organizations that are doing this work. I would write to someone who is incarcerated. If you know someone who is incarcerated, or even if you don’t, now might be the time to reach out. That might seem like it’s not that much, but that teeny, tiny emotional support might mean the world to someone who is inside. I cannot emphasize that enough. Send them letters and,  if they’re in DOC facilities where they can receive them, maybe try and send them clothes. 

We are currently doing a call-in campaign to Mayor de Blasio, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez about immediately releasing folks from DOC custody. I would heavily emphasize contacting the mayor’s office, the governor’s office and the DA offices. Tell them that if they mean what they say and want to take this moral stance, then they have to order as many people released from DOC and DOCCS custody as possible — immediately. Every day that we let go by, may well result in more deaths. I know that’s really grim, but it’s the reality that we’re facing. 

A note to our readers: if you are interested in writing letters to and supporting New York’s prisoners, the Anarchist Black Cross and the Parole Prep Project are currently soliciting donations for incarcerated folks’ accounts. 

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