NYCDS testifies at NYC Board of Correction
February 8, 2022
Members of the Board of Correction New York City Board of Correction 1 Centre St, Room 2213
New York, NY 10007 firstname.lastname@example.org
SUBMITTED VIA EMAIL
Dear Members of the Board of Correction:
Good afternoon, we are Rachel Sznajderman and Natalie Fiorenzo and we are Corrections Specialists at New York County Defender Services (“NYCDS”), a public defender office in Manhattan that every year represents thousands of indigent individuals accused of crimes. As Corrections Specialists, we are responsible for communicating with and advocating for our incarcerated clients. When these clients express concerns relating to their health or living conditions in the jails, it is our job to intervene and advocate on their behalf to try and address underlying issues or unmet needs.
RNDC HUNGER STRIKE
NYCDS is proud to represent Ervin Bowins. Mr. Bowins, despite repeated dehumanization on the part of the NYC Department of Correction (“DOC”), used his voice to start a movement within the walls of Rikers Island. On January 8th, 2022, M. Bowins and hundreds of his fellow detainees began a hunger strike in a desperate effort to draw attention to the egregious conditions and countless human rights violations they face every single day.
NYCDS received a voicemail from Mr. Bowins on Monday, January 10, 2022, reporting that he and his fellow detainees were engaged in a hunger strike. That day, NYCDS staff went to Rikers and met with individuals engaging in the hunger strike. We distributed a phone number for detainees to call and report their experiences.
In our meetings with involved individuals, and in the thirty voicemails received by our office in the ensuing days, we heard harrowing stories of people in avoidable crises. People who had not been fed in days. People whose desperate requests for medical attention had gone ignored for months on end. People who languished in custody, without the ability to access information about their charges or research ways to fight them. People whose court dates had come and gone, without ever being brought out of their cells. People who had not been able to bathe in a clean environment for months, who had not been allowed to go outside, who feared that the dirty water they drank would make them sick. These are the conditions that led two hundred men to starve themselves. They hoped that, through protest, someone in power might finally pay attention and address their suffering.
Alarmingly, and perhaps most revealingly, the Department of Correction was apparently completely unaware of the hunger strike until it was revealed at the Board’s last convening on January 11, 2022, a full four days into the strike. When asked at that meeting, by Board member Franco, for their response to the hunger strike, DOC responded that they “did not have information” about it.
Days later, when the hunger strike had become well-documented and consumed the media’s focus, the Department of Correction became denialists. They claimed it wasn’t real and that those involved were eating from the commissary while on strike. Meanwhile, a principal concern of the strikers was the lack of access to commissary and the unavailability of basic items in the commissary. Now, while the Department of Correction has focused its energy on assuring the public that the hunger strike is over, or that it supposedly never even existed in the first place, they have done virtually nothing to address the concerns that led over two hundred brave people putting their lives on the line in order to obtain basic human rights.
Regardless of whether the hunger strike has ended, the Board and the Department have an obligation to ask themselves: why would two hundred people in their custody starve themselves? The answer is clear. They had no other options.
Our clients have exhausted every possible avenue to receive the basic necessities they deserve as human beings and are entitled to by law. Those cries for help have gone ignored for months.
Rikers Island has been in a state of crisis for the better part of a year. And yet DOC is more concerned with the optics of the hunger strike than actually addressing the concerns that led detainees to strike in the first place.
The demands of those who participated in the hunger strike are not only completely reasonable, they are mandated by law. And it is shameful they even needed to ask. They are as follows:
- Minimum standards
- Daily recreation
- Daily access to the law library
- Provision of 3 meals per day of food that is edible
- Daily provision of prescribed medications
- Access to the clinic and mental health services when requested
- COVID-19 protocols that isolate those who have been exposed, and do not require 24- hour lockdowns for those who have not been exposed or tested positive
- Access to clean water
- Clean bathrooms
- More access to commissary, and more items available for purchase
- Access to mail services
- Access to counsel and due process
The Board of Correction has an obligation to ensure that the constitutionally-guaranteed and human rights of those in its care are met.
RETALIATION BY DOC STAFF
Once news of the hunger strike broke, Mr. Bowins, who had agreed to have his name printed in press reporting, faced immediate retaliation by Department of Correction staff. First, he was forcefully removed from his unit in RNDC. He was told this was because he was “too influential.” He was moved to a GRVC gang house that was under quarantine due to a COVID- 19 exposure, even though Mr. Bowins had not been exposed to COVID-19. After meeting with his attorney and explaining his situation, Mr. Bowins was promptly and viciously assaulted by the gang running the unit he was housed in. After that, he was placed in intake for twenty-four hours and forced to sleep on the floor, where bugs crawled over him as he slept. Finally, he was moved again to VCBC (“the boat”) and told that all of this had happened to him because he was “too high profile.”
Unfortunately, what happened to Mr. Bowins is not an isolated incident. After the Public Advocate Jumaane Williams heard about the hunger strike, he visited Rikers Island to speak to detainees about the conditions they were facing. According to reports from our clients,immediately prior to the Public Advocate’s visit, guards were suddenly dispatched to the unit and the heat was turned on.
But promptly thereafter, our office received several voicemails from those on hunger strike stating that their unit was retaliated against for sharing their stories with the Public Advocate. The unit was raided by a special search team. The heat was shut off. Their personal belongings, including clothing, were searched and stolen without explanation. Today, those who faced this attack are left with no shoes, no socks, no underwear. We continue to hear reports of clients in RNDC who have not been fed in days because DOC staff has refused to bring them food.
What is the Board, the body responsible for holding the Department of Correction responsible to minimum standards, going to do in order to ensure that those involved in the retaliation against our client are held accountable? Please reach out to our office with an action plan for how you plan to address the violence, disruption, and danger faced by our client, and those like him who are brave enough to speak out about what is happening in our jails.
Sincerely, Natalie Fiorenzo
Rachel Sznajderman Corrections Specialists
New York County Defender Services