Governor takes steps to address dire conditions on Rikers Island following public outcry

Governor Kathy Hochul signs the Less in More Act into law to help alleviate the crisis on Rikers Island. (Photo credit: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)

After a public outcry from lawmakers who visited Rikers Island and witnessed “deplorable and deadly conditions” suffered by those incarcerated in the complex, Governor Kathy Hochul took action Friday, Sept. 17 by signing the Less is More Act.

The “decarceration bill” will end the practice of sending people to jail as they await hearings over alleged technical parole violations, such as missed curfew and marijuana use, which is expected to release several hundred detainees from city jails.

“I believe that what today is about is protecting human life, the lives of the people who are incarcerated as well as the correction officers. It’s about protecting human rights. The right to work in a safe environment, the right to live and exist in an environment that is clean, hygienic, and above all safe,” Hochul said. “It’s also about protecting human dignity, and this questions who we are as a people when we can allow situations as we’ve seen in Rikers exist in a prosperous, mighty city like New York. The fact that this exists is an indictment on everyone.”

In addition to signing Less is More, Hochul also announced an agreement with the Department of Correction to release nearly 200 incarcerated individuals and another 200 people who have been sentenced to at least 90 days will be transferred from Rikers Island to state facilities.

“She is acting to help us get a number of people out of Rikers immediately. It looks like initially, that could be several hundred people which is tremendously helpful,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said on his Friday radio appearance with Brian Lehrer. “This Governor has done a lot more to help us just in a matter of days than any help we got previously. This is going to make a huge difference in really profoundly improving the situation.”

The dire conditions on Rikers Island were amplified after a visit by more than a dozen lawmakers including state Senator Jessica Ramos and Assemblywoman Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, who recounted their harrowing ordeal of seeing one man attempt suicide in front of them.

“After an eye-opening and devastating visit to Rikers Island this week, I’m grateful Governor Hochul has signed the Less Is More Act into law. It is also relieving to know that over one hundred ninety people who are incarcerated are being released immediately. And this is still only one step of several that my colleagues in government must take to decarcerate,” González-Rojas said.

González-Rojas reiterated that she believes de Blasio should use correction law to release more people on the inside and that District Attorneys can and should release people on pre-trial detention and they should do so.

“This is a public health emergency. We are not past it yet so we must continue to act with urgency,” González-Rojas said.

Already this year, 10 individuals have died in the jail complex that has been experiencing dire staffing problems throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

State Senator Julia Salazar noted New York imprisons more people for non-criminal “technical” violations of parole than any other state in the country.

“Governor Hochul signing the Less is More bill today means that thousands of New Yorkers will be able to live their lives without continuously falling into the cycle of injustice that is our parole system. Given the unprecedented human rights crisis at the jails on Rikers Island and at correctional facilities in New York, we still have more work to do,” Salazar said. “We must also take legislative action to further transform the parole system and to reverse the devastating toll of mass incarceration on communities across our state.”

Assemblyman David Weprin, the chairman of the Committee of Correction, explained how the Less is More Act will help end the punitive practice of re-incarcerating individuals allowing them to reintegrate into their communities.

“For far too long, people who are on parole have lived in fear of a technical isolation, like being late for curfew, would send them back to prison,” Weprin said. “We all know that life happens. Anyone who lives in New York is aware that subways and buses can run late and cause a missed deadline. A non-criminal technical parole violation should not be a reason for families to be separated from their loved ones. I am proud to witness this much-needed signing today. I thank the sponsors of the bill, legislative leadership, the Governor, and the advocates for all of their tireless work on this bill.”