Inmates on Rikers Island are on a hunger strike in protest of COVID-19 lockdowns and the poor conditions at the chaotic prison facility.
About 200 male inmates at the Robert N. Davoren Complex launched the protest on Saturday, said Alice Fontier, managing director of the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem.
“They have been refusing meals and asking to talk to whoever is in charge,” Fontier told The Post on Tuesday.
“They haven’t named anybody specifically, because of the conditions and the fact that you know they are denied basic medical care, they have been on regular lockdowns, they don’t have law libraries, all of the things that we’ve been talking about this whole time.”
A Department of Correction spokesperson said the detainees have been eating food from the commissary.
“There is no hunger strike,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “A group of detainees were refusing institutional food and instead eating commissary food. The warden is engaged with them and addressing their concerns, and our employees have been working tirelessly to keep all who work and live in our facilities safe.”
A jailhouse source who works at the complex said the men participating in the strike are “old timers” incarcerated for most of their lives, not teens and young adults.
The strike comes as cases of the coronavirus ravage Rikers and force isolation of detainees.
“The house is under quarantine because inmates in the dorm unit have tested positive,” the source said. “Once a housing unit tests positive they have to be on lockdown, meaning no rec, no visits to keep COVID from spreading … They want to be off lockdown basically.”
But the source downplayed the severity of the strike, saying the inmates usually use the commissary except when chicken is served on Sundays and Thursdays.
“They aren’t starving, just not eating jail food,” the source said.
The protest follows a series of wild incidents and controversies at Rikers, including a slew of detainee suicides. Some 16 inmates died overall while in custody of the city’s jail system last year, and one person tried to hang himself while politicians toured the facilities.
Insiders said staffing concerns led to an uptick in inmate violence, fatal ODs and one incident where prisoners shared social media videos of a party in a cell. One state lawmaker called the conditions at Rikers “hellish” after seeing the jail in person.
Posts are continue to go unstaffed, an ongoing issue since last year, and Fontier said inmates sometimes miss court appointments because there is no staff available to take them.
“The simple reality is that many of the problems are worse because they’re still happening,” Fontier said. “The longer you don’t have access to adequate medical care, the longer you don’t have rec, the longer you don’t have law libraries, the longer your cases drag on because you can’t get to court or they keep getting adjourned, the worse it gets.”
The COVID-19 outbreak is making worse an “ongoing horrible situation,” she said.
“It is so widely depressing to me that people are choosing hunger in order to make a point because they can’t have their voices heard and no one else is paying attention,” Fontier said. “It’s tragic to me that they have to resort to this sort of collective activism.”
City jails have a grievance process that allows people in custody to use 311 during a lockout to voice concerns. The grievances go to the warden’s office, and some of the concerns brought up in the protest were previously raised through the grievance system, according to the DOC.