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Socialist Assemblywoman: Shut Down Rikers Island

Phara Souffrant Forrest

Two people have died at Rikers Island in the past week, bringing the total to 12 this year. We spoke with socialist assemblywoman Phara Souffrant Forrest, who just visited Rikers Island, about the unconscionable conditions and why we must close the prison facility once and for all.

Phara Souffrant Forrest, state assemblymember for New York’s 57th district. (Phara for Assembly / Facebook)

Interview by
Hadas Thier

On September 19, Isaabdul Karim became the eleventh person this year to die in custody at the notoriously abusive Rikers Island in New York City. Three days later, Stephan Khadu died at the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center, a floating jail barge docked off of Rikers Island.

Karim was held in an intake cell for ten days and went weeks without medical care. His partner, Felice Bullock, told the New York Times that Karim had complained on the phone: “They’re not feeding us. I don’t know what’s going on. They are treating us like animals; worse than animals.”

On the day of his death, Karim was days, perhaps hours, from qualifying for a release under the new Less Is More legislation, which was introduced in 2018 by socialist state assemblymember Phara Souffrant Forrest and signed into law on September 17, 2021, by New York governor Kathy Hochul. The legislation restricts incarceration for noncriminal technical violations.

Jacobin’s Hadas Thier spoke to Assemblymember Forrest about Isaabdul Karim’s death and the broader human rights crisis at Rikers Island.


Tell me about Isaabdul Karim and the conditions that he endured at Rikers.


Mr. Karim had health complications prior to being taken to Rikers for violating a technical parole violation. He was wheelchair-bound. And he did not receive the medical assessment he needed because he was held in intake for ten days. He was not receiving the medical attention he deserved. He was complaining of chest pain. That was unresolved. He was finally transferred to the hospital and died.


What could have been done to prevent this?


As someone who has taken care of children in the NYC Administration for Children’s Services, one of the first things we make sure of is to obtain a baseline assessment of all children in our care. When I went to Rikers and spoke to the doctors and the nurses there, they were saying that they had people who were sitting in intake that have not been assessed medically.

If you have not assessed them, then you don’t know what medications they require. What’s their diagnosis? Was there a treatment plan prior to them being in custody? You have no clue. You cannot follow through on anything. Not only are their medical needs not being addressed, they also almost never get a mental health assessment.

We know that mental health also affects the body. And so, even once they get a baseline medical assessment, a lot of them don’t get mental healthcare that they need. That is what is most egregious. Because if you don’t know what you’re dealing with, then how are you supposed to prevent harm or be able to assist that person?


Isaabdul Karim was the eleventh person this year to die at Rikers. Could you describe the broader humanitarian crisis that is happening there?


I have visited prisons in Haiti. What I saw when I went to visit Rikers was worse than prisons in a third world country. The smell of bodies, decay, and feces; dead roaches and rats all over the place. Some of the showers are not working, and the toilets are covered in grime.

Then you look at the humans that are in this inhumane place. Teenagers in ripped-up clothes. It’s a problem when you have an eighteen-year-old ask me: Please, can I get a bucket to wash the floors? This place is nasty. They don’t give them buckets to wash, or soap. There are layers of filth on the floor.

The intake room is supposed to hold ten people — it holds twenty. That means that there’s only one toilet in there. In one of the intake rooms we saw, the toilet was broken. So, they gave each of the young men a bag to relieve themselves in. Can you imagine relieving yourself in a bag in the middle of a room with other people? And starvation. We were asking everyone, “Did you get breakfast?” “No.” “Did you get breakfast?” “No.” Even the teaching staff is saying, “No, we didn’t have breakfast.” So, they know what’s going on in there.

One incarcerated man’s mama is connected to one of our offices. So, on behalf of his mama, we talked to him. He said to me, “I know my mom is in high places. But I can’t even speak for myself. I have to speak for others in here who don’t have a mama to advocate for them.”

It’s disgusting. It’s not fit for humans.


There has been a lot of finger-pointing recently about the crisis at Rikers, although we also know there’s a long-standing history of abuses there. What do you think is at the root of the problem? What do you think needs to be done?


The problem is mass incarceration. Mass incarceration is a capitalist- and racist-fueled system to continue to make sure that the working class lives under fear and tyranny. We are putting young people through a poor education system that mimics the jails. They’re pushed through it with very little sympathy and love.

Then if someone steals, they’re being held in the same regard as someone who took somebody’s life. Someone who’s never been given anything is put in a situation of being forced to take. And then they live in neighborhoods where police surveillance is high, and they wind up in prison. This problem has been brewing for a long time.

So, of course Rikers is going to be nonsense. These are the same people that are using prison labor to bury people at Hart Island. They make money off of that. They wash clothes at all the hospitals. They make money off of that. But then how much do they pay the inmates?


The Less Is More legislation that you sponsored, and which just passed, seems like an important step. What will this legislation address?


Less Is More will take into account the person in front of you. First, there’s a tiered system. If you get in trouble for a technical parole violation, you do a seven-day jail stay, then a fifteen-day, and then a thirty-day. You don’t do six months at Rikers anymore. We’re trying to change the system to make sure that you get back to where you’re needed most: with your kid, at your job, with your family. Less Is More gives the person hope. It says, if I work hard, I can get out of this.


What do you think is the next step towards decarceration and a more just system?


With Rikers, shut it down. Immediately, we need a real commitment to decrease the prison population. Then we have to work on elder parole. You have people that are dying in prison. We need fair and timely parole. There has to be a point where we say: Let them free! You did your time, now let’s revisit.

The way I approach these bills is with a nursing perspective. You could look at any hospital patient and see things they may have done to damage their health. But as a nurse, you don’t say, “Well if you didn’t eat those bon bons, you wouldn’t be here today!” We don’t tell people with mental health difficulties, “Get it together!”

It’s the same thing with criminal justice.  You have to create something so that people can live healthy, productive lives. You have to build treatment plans. Because we know that poverty, living under these conditions, is not an individual thing. It’s a systems problem. We know that the beast of capitalism is responsible, so why would we punish human lives like this? We need to try to help people out. That’s my take.