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US lawyers, ex-inmates decry worsening state of New York's 'hellhole' jail

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
This aerial image shows the notorious Rikers Island jail complex in the Bronx borough of New York City, US. (Via AFP)

New York's notorious Rikers Island prison has come under intense scrutiny over the deaths of at least nine inmates this year, with a New York State assemblywoman calling the situation there a "humanitarian crisis".

Officials who visited the high-profile jail, which held disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein, rapper Tupac Shakur and ex-IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, this week, and former inmates told AFP that conditions have worsened dramatically at the sprawling complex due to widespread staff shortages during the pandemic.

Glenn Martin -- who spent three days in Rikers, where he was stabbed four times in an attack, after a shoplifting arrest as a 16-year-old in the late 1980s -- calls it a "hellhole." 

"It's described as a gladiator school for a reason," the 49-year-old told AFP, listing another of Rikers' monikers: "torture island." 

Another ex-poisoner, who was detained for a total of 22 months over two stretches in the 1980s and 2007, said Rikers leaves "a stain on the soul of everyone" who goes there.

The notorious jail, which opened in 1932 and also housed John Lennon killer Mark David Chapman and the Sex Pistols' Sid Vicious, has long had a reputation for being a hotbed of violence.

But US lawmakers and activists say the situation has spiraled out of control in recent months, with conditions becoming unsafe for both prisoners and officers.

"What I witnessed was a humanitarian crisis. A horror house of abuse and neglect," said New York State assemblywoman Emily Gallagher, who visited this week. 

The vast majority of the inmates, who are overwhelmingly from Black and Hispanic communities, are awaiting trial. 

Suicide has increased at the notorious facility, with local media reporting 10 deaths in 2021, at least five from suicide. New York City's department of corrections (DOC) says nine people have died at Rikers this year, up from seven last year and three in 2019. 

Some 2,700 guards -- almost a third of the city's entire prison force -- are currently not working, some because of coronavirus which spread through US jails.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio launched an emergency relief plan for Rikers this week, boosting staffing and implementing 30-day suspensions for officers who go AWOL.

On Friday, Governor Kathy Hochul announced the immediate release of 191 inmates to help temper what she called a "volatile" situation.

Lawyers and criminologists have been calling for the prison's closure for years, citing its age and reputation for violence.

"It's a cancer. It can't be fixed. It needs to be removed and cut out," said Mayfield, 59.

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