How Many People Are Trapped At Rikers Without Being Allowed To See A Judge?
In recent weeks, perhaps in hopes of distracting people from the fact that their reproductive rights are at risk in the midterm elections, Republican candidates have been pushing to turn the focus to immigration and violent crime. Pollsseem to suggest that it's working, most worryingly in the battleground states of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Historically, being "tough on crime" in America means pushing for incredibly harsh sentences and treating prisoners and defendants horrifically. Does it work? No. It actually makes things worse. "The great irony of the past 50 years of U.S. criminal justice policy is that we could not have intentionally designed and built a better recidivism machine than the one we have," University of Texas sociology professor William R. Kelly explained in Psychology Today in 2018. Alas, that doesn't actually matter politically so long as those policies make people feel safer, which they often do.
Well, we have some very good news for those people who are worried that our country has "gone soft" on crime, and bad news for those who care at all about human and/or constitutional rights and are capable of calming their faces for long enough to find out that "deterrence theory" is nonsense and does nothing to prevent crime.
A new lawsuit filed against the city of New York alleges that the NYPD's policy of "bringing individuals directly to Riker’s Island and City Jails — instead of taking them to the courts — when they discover a warrant bearing the person’s name," regardless of how "old or obviously invalid" the warrant is, has resulted in people being imprisoned indefinitely on Rikers without ever getting to see a judge or get a court date, and with no clear understanding of when they will be released.
What's happening is this: Police or bounty hunters arrest people after seeing they have bench warrants against them, only to find when they bring them in that those warrants had been cleared. Instead of letting them go, they just send them to Rikers — and because they don't actually have warrants out against them, they can't see a judge or get a court date and pretty much just have to stay there, in horrific conditions, until someone on the outside realizes they are gone, finds them and then hires a lawyer to get them out.
The lawsuit is being brought by plaintiffs Paul Phillips, Khaori Wright, Randy Rosario, and Kylasyia Thompson, all of whom were sent to Rikers under these conditions and seek "redress for Defendants’ violations of their rights under the United States Constitution and federal laws as well as the New York State Constitution and state laws" in addition to "class-wide and individual monetary damages" and "declaratory and injunctive relief to stop this nightmare, and reasonable attorney’s fees, costs, and expenses."
On July 3, 2020, John Phillips was pulled over by a New York State Trooper who ran his license and registration and found that he had a warrant from New York County Criminal Court from back in 1989. As Phillips told the Trooper, that warrant had been vacated years earlier, but he was nonetheless handcuffed and brought in to the NYPD Bronx Warrant Division. Once there, an officer identified as John Doe 1 informed Phillips that there was no warrant and he shouldn't be there, saying that he would contact the Bronx County District Attorney and get him released. Later, Doe said he couldn't do that and that Phillips would have to go to Rikers to get processed.
Phillips was then held at Rikers for four days; he was barred from taking his medications for opioid addiction, bipolar disorder, and PTSD — which can be extremely dangerous, not just psychologically but physically. His fianceé had brought these medications in for him and repeatedly called the DOC trying to ensure that they were given to him, to no avail.
As a result, Phillips suffered from "withdrawal as well as severe Bipolar episodes and extreme and enduring pain, panic, and anxiety."
The lawsuit claims that "[o]n July 6, 2020, an attorney from the Legal Aid Society spoke with a DOC Doe Defendant (one of DOC Does 1-10) at the Anna M. Kross Center (AMKC) to determine how and why Mr. Phillips had been held over for days without release or arraignment and was informed in substance that Mr. Phillips was being held on a warrant for an old case and that DOC could not bring him to court because he did not have a court date or appearance scheduled and that in sum the courts were not open."
Since being incarcerated, Phillips's psychological state has deteriorated and he is now afraid to leave the house for fear this could happen to him again. Which it could.
Plaintiff Khaori Wright was also arrested on a "zombie warrant," and was not sent to a judge upon being brought in. Rather, instead of bringing him to court like they were supposed to do, the officers who arrested him transferred custody to the Department of Corrections, which then transported him directly to the Vernon C. Bain Center (VCBC), a floating jail barge.
The lawsuit alleges:
Under the conditions created and maintained by the DOC, Mr. Wright was unable to shower or have consistent access to a toilet. He slept on the floor and spent hours at a time locked in a shower stall used by DOC as a makeshift cell.
At the time of his arrest, Mr. Wright had his jaw wired shut due to a preexisting injury. DOC members refused to provide him with food he could eat. When he requested food he would be able to swallow with his jaw wired shut, such as pudding or soft foods, DOC Does mocked him and offered moldy and expired items that had become soggy.
Mr. Wright was incarcerated for seventeen days before a judge ordered his release at the behest of his attorney, who had received word of his extrajudicial incarceration from Mr. Wright’s loved ones.
Wright lost 20 pounds during these days because no one would give him any food he could eat.
Police came to 21-year-old Randy Rosario's home while he was out, saying they had a warrant for his arrest. Once he found out about this, Rosario turned himself into the police. Rosario was also not taken to see a judge, but rather incarcerated for "four days, during which time he was in intake and had no access to a phone."
Kylasyia Thompson was taken into custody by bounty hunters and brought to Rikers Island and "was transferred to DOC custody, where she was told by DOC Doe #21 that she 'should not be [there]' but that without a next court date on her intake paperwork there was nothing they could do to secure her release or transport her to court."
Rather than sending her home or finding a way to get her in to see a judge, the DOC officials simply sent her to Rikers where she was held for five days without being allowed to see a judge.
How many others?
We don't know. We can't know. These people are not being processed, they're not being given court dates, they're just incarcerated until someone from their family or an attorney makes a big fuss. Given the notoriously horrific conditions of Rikers, the lawsuit alleges that "if done by a private citizen, what the City did to Mr. Phillips (for example) would likely constitute attempted murder." Which it would.
Private citizens are not legally allowed to kidnap people and deny them their medications. They are also not allowed to kidnap and then starve people for two and a half weeks. It is a blatant violation of our constitution for police officers, DOC officials and state troopers to do this as well, but they seem to be getting away with it just fine.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse