Protesters rally at Foley Square in Manhattan on July 11, demanding the closure of the Rikers Island jail. Photo: Alex Krales.

At a demonstration at Foley Square in Lower Manhattan today, dozens of family members of Rikers Island inmates stood in the pouring rain with activists, calling for “ending torture” and the immediate closure of the notorious jail.

Advocacy groups Jails Action Coalition and HALT Solitary Confinement partnered to organize the protest, in response to the death of a Rikers inmate Willam Johnstone, who was 47. It was the sixth time this year a Rikers inmate has died in custody.  

Johnstone, who had been interred at Rikers since March, was found unresponsive in his cell. Neither the medical examiner’s office nor the corrections department have responded to the Herald’s questions about the cause of death.

Earlier this month, Mayor Eric Adams announced that the Department of Corrections will no longer publicly disclose deaths in custody at Rikers.

A Morrisania resident at the rally, Norma Ginez, said she was intimately familiar with the dangers of being locked up Rikers.

“My children’s father has bipolar and they weren’t really getting the adequate treatment or making sure they’re being all safe,” she said, adding that the man is filing a lawsuit against the city for burns and injuries he suffered in a fall due to poor conditions.

Bronxite Anthony Springer of the Urban Youth Alliance said the use of public funds for Rikers must be carefully examined.

“We are spending 500,000 per person, but these people are not receiving services,” said Springer. “So where is that money being spent? The question has to be asked to the mayor.”

At a rally at Foley Square last week, following the death in custody of another inmate, the city’s Deputy Public Advocate for Justice, Health and Safety, Solomon Acevedo, urged attendees to read the findings of a court-appointed federal monitor, which concluded that “unprecedented rates of use of force and violence, appear to have become normalized,” citing increases in use of force, stabbings and slashings, fights, assaults on staff, and in-custody deaths. 

Activists blame a surge in excessive use of force by corrections officers for the death. According to the federal monitor’s report, plans to shutter Rikers and find alternative solutions have stalled. 

In 2018, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to demolish the Rikers jail and replace it with four smaller, borough-based jails, including one on a former NYPD tow pound in Mott Haven. But a robust coalition of jail abolitionists has continued to hold rallies citywide, calling on the city to shutter Rikers without replacing it.

Construction has begun on a new jail next to the Bruckner Expressway in Mott Haven, that would be one of four borough-based jails throughout the city. Corrections officials say the new, modern lockups would justify closing down the outdated, dilapidated and overcrowded facility on Rikers.

Detractors, however, contend that no new jails should be built to accompany the closing of Rikers, and that alternatives to incarceration should replace prisons.

A prior version of this story appeared on July 16. 

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