Advocates say 'death is not enough' for changes at Rikers Island after the New York City jail sees 1st fatality of 2023

An aerial view of the Rikers Island prison complex, Queens, N.Y.
An aerial view of the Rikers Island prison complex, Queens, N.Y. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images) (Corbis via Getty Images)

On Feb. 4, 65-year-old Marvin Pines died in custody at Rikers Island, New York City’s largest jail complex, marking the first death of an inmate there this year. In November, Pines pleaded guilty to multiple drug charges and was set to be sentenced at the end of the month.

According to the New York City Department of Corrections, Pines’s death is still under investigation, but his attorney says he suffered from drug addiction and seizures.

“On Saturday morning, I got a call from the legal department indicating that shortly after 6 a.m. he had a seizure and he passed away,” Javier Damien, Pines’s attorney, told Yahoo News. “He was terrified about going to jail because he [was] concerned about his health.”

The death toll at Rikers Island hit a record high in 25 years in 2022, after 19 people died in custody or shortly after being released.

“Any death in custody is a tragedy. We sincerely send our deepest condolences and sympathy to Mr. Pines’ family and loved ones. As with all deaths in custody, we are working with our partner agencies to conduct a full investigation,” New York City Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina said in a statement.

Criminal justice activists call for the closing of Rikers Island jail.
Criminal justice activists call for the closing of Rikers Island jail, Feb. 28, 2022. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images) (Corbis via Getty Images)

Rikers Island, which includes 10 jails, currently has over 5,000 inmates in custody. The majority of inmates are awaiting trial because they can’t afford bail.

Pines leaves behind a daughter who wants answers as to how and why her father died. “She's devastated about it. She's very angry — she thinks they dropped the ball here,” Damien said.

There have been 36 deaths at the infamous facility since January 2021, and criminal justice reform advocates say the first death of 2023 was bound to happen.

“I knew that death would happen, just like there's gonna be more deaths,” Olayemi Olurin, a New York City-based lawyer and progressive political commentator, told Yahoo News. “To be honest, this is the obvious continuation, because the reality is they're not doing anything different.”

In 2015, District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain appointed a federal monitor to provide regular updates and issue mandates on the jail, but advocates say Rikers is still failing the incarcerated.

“I am in total agreement with the monitor’s recommendations. My vision is to create a culture of discipline and service to those incarcerated,” Molina said in an April 2022 interview with ABC News.

The Rikers Island facility
The Rikers Island facility. (Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images) (AFP via Getty Images)

In 2021, photos from the facility showed some of the gruesome conditions that inmates are facing, such as the cramming of over two dozen men into one holding cell for days.

“There’s a crisis we’ve been showing them — the medical appointments that have been missed, rampant deaths, rampant violence, all these different things, and they won’t intervene, they won’t allow for the receivership,” Olurin said.

Swain continues to deny requests to appoint a federal receiver to take over the jail; the most recent block was in November 2022 due to “important indications of improvement,” the judge said.

However, if conditions continue to worsen on the 413-acre island, Swain said she could consider additional motions for a receiver this year.

In the meantime, advocates say more inmates will die if nothing is done. “I honestly do not know what it'll take to get the judge to appoint a receiver,” DeRay Mckesson, co-founder of Campaign Zero, an organization working to end mass incarceration, told Yahoo News.

“Death is not enough,” he continued. “Corruption is not enough. Contraband is not enough. Incompetence isn't enough. I don’t know what the trigger will be for the judge to finally say that the administration is just incapable of running the jail in a way that doesn’t lead to chaos.”

New York City Mayor Eric Adams
New York City Mayor Eric Adams at the 2023 community inauguration of House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images) (Pacific Press/LightRocket via Ge)

But New York City Mayor Eric Adams says Rikers is making significant progress. “Since Commissioner Molina assumed office, in conjunction with the federal monitor, we’ve seen reductions in use of force and assaults on staff, increased searches for weapons and contraband, and sick leave that has dropped to levels not seen since before last summer’s horrendous shortages,” Adams said last April.

In 2022, the population at Rikers decreased by 131 people, but the detained population of over 5,900 is still far above the 3,300-person capacity. According to the New York City comptroller’s office, violent incidents at the jail also decreased, but there was an increase of those detained with mental illness.

“The rising number of people detained with serious mental illness in our jails adds to the ever-growing humanitarian crisis on Rikers Island. New York must not default to using our jail system as a mental health treatment facility. We have an obligation to ensure all New Yorkers in our care are given proper health treatment, and that includes New Yorkers awaiting trial,” said Comptroller Brad Lander in a statement last month.

Advocates are pushing to close down Rikers completely to protect the most vulnerable population, such as those with mental illness. “They need treatment, not jail,” Darren Mack, co-director of Freedom Agenda, one of the key organizations leading the campaign to close Rikers, said. “As long as Rikers remains open, more people are going to die.”

Then-New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, with Department of Correction Commissioner Joe Ponte and warden Becky Scott, tours Second Chance Housing at Rikers Island in 2014.
Then-New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, with Department of Correction Commissioner Joe Ponte and warden Becky Scott, tours Second Chance Housing at Rikers Island in 2014. (Susan Watts — Pool/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

In 2017, then-New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio issued the “Roadmap to Closing Rikers Island,” a 10-year plan that involves lowering the inmate population and designing borough-based jails. In de Blasio's plan the new jails will be in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx and hold only up to 3,300 people.

But advocates say closing Rikers and replacing it with four jails is insufficient. “What we actually need to do is stop fueling mass incarceration, because the reality is Rikers, like all of these pretrial detention centers, are pretrial — these people don't need to be held,” Olurin said.

Instead, Olurin said the problem is pretrial detention centers across the country. “It isn't special at Rikers,” she said.

For instance, Harris County jail in Texas, with a population of over 10,000, also saw a record number of inmate deaths in 2022 as more than 20 inmates died in custody.

While closing the 10 jails on Rikers island won’t solve the entire issue, Mack of Freedom Agenda believes it will help. “It will alleviate a lot of problems — people will be closer to the courts, replacing the old decrepit facility so we can have medical units on each floor, so we can have program space, so we can have air conditioning, an adequate heating system, easier access for families and and public defenders,” he said.

Mack was 17 years old when he was incarcerated at Rikers Island, and he said these deaths are heartbreaking.

“They're human beings, they're mothers, they're brothers, they're sisters, they're neighbors, people that come from our community — people should be alive [and] should not be suffering,” he said.