City Council member Keith Powers visited Rikers Island on Monday as the temperature hit almost 90 degrees to check up on the state of air conditioning in some facilities that date back to the 1930s. The recorded temperature in buildings without air conditioning was as high as 90 to 94 degrees.
While the city council has mandated that all future borough-based jails be equipped with air conditioning and heating, the councilman is concerned about access to air conditioning in existing facilities, particularly in restricted housing units and for heat-sensitive individuals.
“We must ensure livable conditions and safety for people in custody while also acting with urgency to close Rikers Island, said Councilman Powers.
During his visit, the Councilman walked away with some key findings. For example, while the intake was properly air-conditioned, other units in Otis Bantum Correctional Center were without air conditioning. But he noted that there was access to cold showers, ice, cold water and fans in congregated areas.
Also, all individuals who are heat sensitive in Enhance Supervised Housing (ESH) had been moved to units with air conditioning.
And some new units were equipped with air conditioning at Anna M. Kross Center, and repairs were made to add housing with air conditioning at George Vierno Center.
Councilman Powers said that these findings represent progress from last year when complaints were raised about hot water and access to air conditioning. Nonetheless, he issued a number of recommendations.
For example, he noted there must be reforms as it relates to solitary confinement.
“People should not be locked-in their cells for 17 hours or more, with reduced access to critical cooling resources. We especially need to get people out of ESH immediately, because it is not air-conditioned and I believe it is inhumane to keep people in their cells in 94-degree heat,” said Councilman Powers.
In addition, the Department of Corrections should continue to move forward with the installation of air conditioning in all units, and DOC also needs to move heat-sensitive individuals to units that have air conditioning.
Lastly, he seconded Mayor Bill de Blasio in calling for the permanent closure of Rikers Island and replace it with smaller borough-based facilities.
"Any plan to deal with heat must recognize that these facilities are outdated. We have to act with continued urgency to close Rikers. We must continue to keep the jail population low and continue releasing individuals who are medically vulnerable, which can minimize the spread and impact of COVID."
The councilman also said he'll be working with the Board of Correction, Department of Correction and other stakeholders to address his recommendations.