Queens councilman asks Hochul to call in National Guard to offset chaos at Rikers Island

Councilman Robert Holden (QNS file photo by Max Parrott)

Queens elected officials have been adamant about the reform needed at Rikers Island after 12 inmates have died just this year — among them is Councilman Robert Holden, who is calling on Gov. Kathy Hochul to activate the National Guard in order to alleviate the dangerous conditions brought on by a “lack of leadership and poor policies.”

This past week, another inmate, Isaabdul Karim, died just after the governor announced nearly 200 detainees at Rikers on minor parole violations would be released. The order stipulated that technical violators could go home if they had been incarcerated for 30 days — Karim, who would have otherwise qualified, was at Rikers for 29 days. 

On Sunday, Sept. 19, Karim died after a medical emergency, which has been credited to a lack of medical or mental health services for weeks. Hochul had just signed the Less is More Act, which would result in the issuance of a written notice of violation and a court date as opposed to someone being automatically incarcerated.

Even before Karim’s death, Holden encouraged the governor to call upon the National Guard to provide more security at Rikers. 

“The mayor has already checked out, abandoned our hardworking Department of Correction Officers and broken his promises,” Holden said. “They’re still being forced to work triple shifts, making their jobs even more dangerous. A lack of leadership and poor policies have made the Rikers Island facility dangerous, not the location.”

Holden said that inmates and officers are in danger of being hurt or killed with the current conditions at Rikers. 

Last week, elected officials, including Assembly member Jessica González-Rojas and state Senator Jessica Ramos, visited Rikers Island, where they say they witnessed an inmate’s attempted suicide. 

González-Rokas said she wonders how many lives it will take before decisive and effective action is taken. 

“Since visiting Rikers Island a week ago, two more deaths have happened on our watch and it’s exactly what we said would occur without necessary action. Rikers is beyond reform and several legislators who have visited the island now know it,” González-Rojas said. “The people who are incarcerated and the staff who work there are no longer safe from the severe neglect and violence that have been escalating. We need the mayor and district attorneys to act if we are going to prevent more death.”

Twelve detainees have died at Rikers this year, several from suicide. The jail’s reputation for violence and chaos has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which infected more than 2,200 employees. With staff out sick in record numbers, the conditions at Rikers began to get even more dire.

But while some elected officials in Queens are calling for people in Rikers to be released, Holden criticized the state’s decision to release nearly 1,500 people to curb the spread of COVID. 

“Releasing more dangerous criminals onto our streets is not the answer and will make more New Yorkers the victims of crime,” Holden said. “Inmates slated for release include career criminals with multiple prior sentences. Seventy percent of inmates at Rikers are recidivists.”

Holden said he is disappointed that he has yet to get a response from the governor about his suggestion to bring in the National Guard. 

“Other cities have pulled the National Guard into their jails during the pandemic, so it’s not unheard of,” Holden said. “Pulling NYPD officers off the streets to work at Rikers is not the answer, nor is emptying out the jail and putting more criminals on the street.”

Holden will join Senate Republican Leader Rob Ortt and Councilman Joe Borelli on Thursday, Sept. 23, in a press conference outside of Rikers Island to “decry the recent pro-criminal policies out of Albany and the crisis on Rikers Island.”