October 5, 2021

Contact: Sam McCann, Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem (SMccann@ndsny.org)

(NEW YORK, NY)14 legislators issued an open letter to the five New York City District Attorneys today demanding that prosecutors end their cash bail practices and stop sending New Yorkers accused of crimes to a potential death sentence on Rikers Island. The elected officials said that the number of people held pretrial on Rikers has surged this year, growth that has been driven primarily by the District Attorney seeking bail in virtually every eligible case.

The elected officials who signed the letter are: Senator Alessandra Biaggi; Senator Jessica Ramos; Senator Julia Salazar; Senator Robert Jackson; Assemblymember Khaleel Anderson; Assemblymember Kenny Burgos; Assemblymember Harvey Epstein; Assemblymember Emily Gallagher; Assemblymember Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas; Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani; Assemblymember Marcela Mitaynes; Assemblymember Dan Quart; Assemblymember Phara Souffrant Forrest; and Councilmember Brad Lander. Signatories also included Democratic Nominee for City Council Tiffany Caban, as well as public defender organizations and community organizations. 

Many of the officials who signed the letter have visited Rikers in recent weeks and said the deadly conditions they witnessed in the jails were driven by District Attorneys’ decisions. The officials cite a number of specific examples of bail requests, including DA offices requesting bail on misdemeanor charges against homeless New Yorkers, as instances of bail practices driving the Rikers crisis. 

Many of the signatories will deliver this open letter outside of Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s office as part of a rally and press conference at 10 AM on Wednesday, October 6, at 1 Hogan Place.

The letter reads in part:

“We write regarding the ongoing humanitarian crisis at the Rikers Island jail complex, which continues to be fueled by the callous decisions you and your staff make to send New Yorkers to their potential deaths by requesting cash bail. 

Throughout the year, a rising jail population has led to the steady degradation of the conditions at Rikers. In the last few months, the conditions have worsened so substantially that people are dying regularly and an unprecedented crisis prevails. While there are other contributing forces to this shameful situation—COVID, staff absenteeism, an abdication of DOC responsibility—there is no doubt that the driving cause behind it remains the decision of your offices to seek bail recklessly and in virtually every eligible case. Those decisions now leave thousands of poor New Yorkers—mostly Black and brown—to endure torture every day.    

When we recently visited Rikers, we personally witnessed the horrors that our incarcerated neighbors face.  Food is scarce, as are clean clothes or access to showers. When the intake cells are finally deemed too crowded, corrections staff have locked multiple people into shower cells and given them plastic bags in which to urinate and defecate. For those who have made it out of intake, chronic staff absenteeism has prevented people from accessing everything from attorney calls to basic care. Those held have consistently been denied access to medical and mental health care, and medical and mental health emergencies are effectively ignored. Two elected officials recently witnessed an attempted suicide during their visit… 

…The majority of people currently held at Rikers face pending criminal charges and are held because they cannot afford to pay bail to secure their release. Every person who is held on bail is held because your office requested that bail be set in their case. Although bail is only supposed to be set when it is the least restrictive means to ensure a person’s return to court—and bail determinations are supposed to be sensitive to a person’s ability to pay—unaffordable bail is nonetheless set on people who will never be able to pay to secure their release thereby ensuring their incarceration throughout the pendency of their case. 

While our visit to Rikers was horrifying, many of us recently witnessed your offices in action by visiting arraignments and were similarly appalled. The two sites—the blunt torture of Rikers and the formal violence of the courtrooms in which you seek cash bail—are inextricably linked. The below examples illustrate how each of your offices has refused to consent to the release of persons who should not remain incarcerated and have violated the bail law by requesting unaffordable bail or bail for people who pose no risk of flight…

We call on you to immediately stop requesting bail in all cases to ensure that not a single additional person is held in the inhumane conditions at Rikers. Because your offices control bail requests, you can stem the flow of people to Rikers right now. Every time your ADAs request bail be set, particularly when they know that bail is unaffordable, they demonstrate a callous disregard for human life and make clear that you are willing to subject presumptively innocent people to torture.  

We further request that you consent to the release of people currently held on bail at Rikers or, at the least, consent to bail modifications that will allow those who are able to pay minimal bail to secure their release. We call on you to consent to the release of all those who are at heightened risk of serious illness from COVID and of severe mental health decompensation in jail.

​​Jail is not supposed to be a death sentence. You must act now.”

You can read the full letter here.


Sam McCann, Communications Specialist, NDS
Phone: (212) 316-7399
Email: smccann@ndsny.org