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Hundreds of women inmates to be moved from Rikers Island due to dangerous conditions

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

We turn now to Rikers Island in New York City. It's a sprawling jail complex where officials and activists say conditions are intolerably dangerous. This week city and state leaders announced that more than 200 women inmates will be transferred to other facilities to alleviate the crisis. Those being moved include transgender detainees, who are especially at risk of abuse. NPR's Jasmine Garsd has been talking with Rikers detainees and their families.

So, Jasmine, first of all, can you just tell us where you are right now?

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Yeah. I've been spending the last few weeks right here at the parking lot outside of Rikers Island, which is in New York City's main prison. It houses 4,800 people on any given day. And what I've been doing is just standing out here, speaking to the families of detainees.

MCCAMMON: And what are you hearing from people who are going in and out of Rikers?

GARSD: Anxiety, anger. Most people I've spoken to have loved ones who have been sitting there for several months without trial, in some cases without even seeing a lawyer. And every single person I spoke to told me their loved ones are reporting the facility is run by gangs. There's a shortage of corrections officers and oftentimes no food, no beds, no medical attention. I spoke to one man who had just been released. He broke a bone when he was arrested and said he couldn't get medical care in jail.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I was calling my sister-in-law crying, and she had to call to Rikers Island so they could change my bandage, to change my bandage. My leg - I have wounds in my legs. And they had no medical treatment, and I was in pain. They didn't give me no medications.

GARSD: This man says it took a month to get medication and claims he wasn't able to see a lawyer until three months into detention. Everyone I spoke to out here has requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation.

MCCAMMON: And, Jasmine, we noted earlier that more than 200 inmates are being sent elsewhere. Have you heard any reactions to this news?

GARSD: Yes. Starting Monday, these inmates will be transferred to two state prisons 40 miles north of New York City. The idea here is to alleviate the staffing crisis. Earlier, I spoke to one woman who was on her way to visit her daughter, who is among those who are getting transferred.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It's going to be harder for us to visit. You know, these are her kids. The stuff that's going on in there - it's crazy. So I'm just worried about over there how it's going to be - worse, better.

GARSD: Families and activists I've spoken to keep telling me this. The solution isn't sending people even further away from their families, which they say makes rehabilitation and reintegration even more difficult.

MCCAMMON: And, Jasmine, let's talk bigger picture. For decades, there's been talk of shutting down Rikers because of many of these concerns. Where does that plan stand?

GARSD: The idea has always been to build smaller facilities in boroughs around the city. But guess what? When you start talking about building jails in neighborhoods, you start getting local pushback. Yesterday I sat down with Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, and here's what he had to say.

ERIC GONZALEZ: Are we going to invest money in Rikers? Or are we going to figure out some other venue in place to hold people? But the island should be closed. It's beyond such disrepair that to sink millions or tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars seems like a bad investment.

GARSD: He says changes are already happening. City officials are asking for emergency staffing. They're also cracking down on corrections officers who don't show up to work. They've opened a new intake center for processing detainees, and people are being transferred out. But everyone I've spoken to, from politicians to activists - they say these measures are temporary relief. It's time to close this island. Now, whether there is the political will to do this - that is the age-old question here at Rikers.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Jasmine Garsd outside Rikers Island jail in New York City.

Jasmine, thanks for your reporting.

GARSD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.