He Was Homeless, So the Judge Kept Him at Rikers

How a lack of stable housing, combined with bureaucratic hurdles in New York’s labyrinthine re-entry process, kept one man at Rikers during the height of its crisis.

Sam Mellins   ·   January 3, 2022
Since being released from jail in October, James has been living in the Wyndham Garden hotel in Queens. | Google Maps

In his room at the Wyndham Garden hotel in Fresh Meadows, Queens, James dreads falling asleep. 

“When I wake up, I don’t know if I’m going to be in jail. I look around, like, ‘Am I in jail still?’” James told New York Focus. “If I don’t go to sleep, I don’t have to go through that.”

James, who asked that his real name not be used due to an ongoing criminal case, was incarcerated on Rikers Island from August to October.

Since his release, he’s been living at Wyndham Garden. There and at five other hotels around the city, the re-entry nonprofit Exodus Transitional Community and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice have collaborated since April 2020 to provide single rooms and extensive social services to New Yorkers recently released from incarceration. 

Judges are often unwilling to release defendants to shelters due to fears that they will reoffend or skip their court dates. A spot in a hotel can offer a path out of Rikers for defendants awaiting trial who don’t have stable housing—which is why there’s a long waitlist for Exodus’ program, generally hovering between 200 and 250, according to the group. 

Without such a spot, defendants are left facing Rikers’ dire humanitarian conditions for weeks or months on end. The risks include contracting Covid-19, which in recent weeks has infected over a fifth of incarcerated people at Rikers as the omicron variant has rampaged through the jail population.

For weeks this fall, James was kept in jail because he had nowhere else to go. The fact that he didn’t have a home, combined with repeated breakdowns in the complex process of coordination between the courts, understaffed jails, hospitals, jail clinics and social service groups involved in his case, left him at Rikers, waiting for release and for proper medical attention, at the height of its crisis.

Released and Reincarcerated

James’ odyssey through the city’s criminal justice system began in January, when he was arrested for domestic violence. A judge issued an order of protection prohibiting him from contacting his partner and set his bail at $15,000. Unable to afford that amount, he was sent to the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center, a floating jail just off of Hunts Point in the Bronx nicknamed “the boat,” to await his trial.

While in jail, James contracted Covid-19.

He was transferred to Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan to be treated. While he was at the hospital, the Department of Correction’s health department recommended his release, citing the potential for further complications from the virus due to James’ enlarged heart. A judge conditioned his release on his pleading guilty to criminal contempt of court and accepting a three year probation sentence, which he did. 

Meanwhile, a team of social workers at the Bronx Defenders working on James’ case had found him a spot at a hotel run by the city’s Department of Homeless Services, ensuring that he would have housing once he was released.

On January 25, James was supposed to leave Bellevue and go to the hotel, but a bureaucratic snafu meant that he never made it.

Eli Northrup, an attorney at Bronx Defenders who is representing James, said that there was a mix-up about where to pick James up. Since incarcerated people are generally taken to the hotels directly from Rikers Island, Department of Homeless Services staff were unprepared to pick him up at Bellevue. James had already left the hospital by the time a bus finally arrived at Bellevue to pick him up, and since he didn’t have a phone, there was no way that he could be reached.

James’ attorneys, social service providers, and the court system all lost track of him. He stayed with friends and family for a few weeks, but soon became homeless.

Eventually, needing a place to stay, he returned to the apartment building where the mother of his children was living. On August 3, he was rearrested there and charged with violating his probation and the order of protection. When he was arraigned on August 5, a judge set his bail at $7,000. Unable to come up with the money, he was once again sent to jail, this time at Rikers Island.

Inside Rikers

James said that when he first arrived at Rikers, he was held in a roughly 200-square foot intake cell at the Otis Bantum Correctional Center (OBCC) that was filled with several dozen men

Conditions in the intake cell were miserable. According to James, the only food available was cereal and ice cream, no masks were provided, and the only toilet had overflowed, leaving two inches of human waste on the floor and forcing people to urinate on the walls. James said that he witnessed a suicide attempt in a neighboring intake cell.

A DOC spokesperson disputed many of James’ claims. The spokesperson said that during the time James was held in intake, there were no reports of plumbing issues in the cell; and that incarcerated people received meals that included fresh fruit and hominy grits with whole wheat bread, noodles with meat sauce and steamed spinach, and baked battered fish with tartar sauce and mashed potatoes.

Northrup dismissed those responses. “Anyone who has ever been at Rikers will find DOC's claim of serving 'baked battered fish' and 'hominy grits' laughable. If DOC gave out those meals, they were not given to people in their custody," he said.

A recent court case echoes James’ claim about being denied access to food while in the intake cell. In a December 22 ruling, state court judge April Newbauer cited evidence submitted to the court by another pretrial detainee incarcerated in Rikers. In that case, the detainee testified that “during both of his stays in intake units at Rikers, there were days in which he received no food at all [and on] the days he did receive food, he received no more than one meal per day, which typically consisted of a single bowl of cereal and several scoops of jelly.”

The DOC spokesperson acknowledged that conditions in the OBCC intake cells had been poor, but said that conditions were better at a newly opened intake facility. “The poor conditions in Otis Bantum Correctional Center’s intake do not exist today,” the spokesperson said in a statement to New York Focus. “We’ve closed OBCC’s intake and reopened the Eric M. Taylor Center for intake purposes, ended overcrowding and long waits in intake, and thoroughly cleaned this and many other facilities. The intake process now takes a matter of hours. We have a way to go, but we are working around the clock to make Rikers safer.”

After leaving the OBCC intake cell, James said, he was placed in a dormitory in the jail. There, he said, conditions were a little better: there were beds and working plumbing. But according to James, there was still frequent violence between incarcerated people, dead birds in the windows, mice running across the floor, and no masks. (A DOC spokesperson said that they were unaware of any reports of vermin or dead birds in the OBCC dorms.)

Medical care was also inaccessible, James said. James requires regular medication for his enlarged heart to prevent complications that could include cardiac arrest. “If I don’t get my medication, I can die,” he said.

According to James, clinic staff would often make their rounds through the dormitories but would rarely give out medication. As a result, he said, during the two months he was incarcerated at OBCC, he only received six days’ worth of doses of his medications. He regularly worried that stress combined with lack of medication could trigger a heart attack.

On one occasion, James said, he tried to go to the clinic himself without first receiving permission from correctional officers—only to discover the entrance to the clinic was blocked by a crowd of “at least fifty” incarcerated people also trying to get their medications or treatments. In the end, he said, he went back upstairs to his dorm, having failed to get his medication or even enter the clinic.

When asked about James’ claims that he and other incarcerated people did not receive their required medications, Correctional Health Services told New York Focus that it could not comment due to concerns about patient privacy.

Delayed Exodus

While James was trying to survive inside Rikers, his legal team at Bronx Defenders was working to reach a plea deal with his judge and the prosecutor assigned to his case. By the time of his September 23 court date, James’ lawyers, the prosecution, and judge had nearly hammered out a solution: James would remain on probation, enter job training and counseling programs through the Fortune Society, a reentry non-profit, and work with a caseworker at Fortune to access medical care. 

But one obstacle still stood in the way. The Bronx Defenders social workers assigned to James’ case had not yet been able to secure him stable, non-shelter housing. That was a sticking point for the prosecution and the judge in James’ case, Northrup said: they would not agree to his release until he had stable housing lined up. (The Bronx district attorney's office did not respond to a request for comment.)

Across New York City, lack of housing is often an obstacle to release.

“That happens on a very regular basis,” said Yung-Mi Lee, legal director of the criminal defense practice at Brooklyn Defender Services. “Judges often believe that someone who’s homeless or in the shelter system will not appear in court.”

Two city judges told City Limits in September that a defendant not having a permanent address is a factor in their decision whether or not to release a defendant awaiting trial. A survey used by the New York Criminal Justice Agency to issue a recommendation on pretrial release docks points if a defendant does not have a permanent address.

Prosecutors are also less willing to consent to pretrial release if someone does not have stable housing.

“Stable housing is one of the predictors of better outcomes across the board, from return to court to successful reentry,” a spokesperson for the Brooklyn district attorney's office told New York Focus in a statement. “It is not a barrier for ROR [release] but it is something we look for when consenting to release of already-detained individuals into supervised release, as we have done to help reduce the jail population during the COVID emergency and the recent humanitarian crisis in Rikers.”

This means that for people like James, a spot in a transitional housing program like Exodus can be the difference between being kept in Rikers and being released.

Social workers at Bronx Defenders had applied for James to be admitted to the Exodus program on September 14, but were told that nothing was available. Since they still had not found anything by the time James appeared in court on September 23, the judge refused to release him.

On September 30, still in jail, James fell while taking a shower. The fall injured his elbow and hip, and he found that he could not lift himself back up.

“When I fell, I couldn’t move my whole body,” he said.

He started calling for help but received no answer, he said, so he eventually dragged himself to within sight of a windowed correctional officers’ room and began lobbing bars of soap at the windows to get the officers’ attention.

Eventually, he said, an officer came and sent for help, and he was taken to the medical unit on a stretcher. James said that medical staff put his wrist in a cast and gave him water, a muscle relaxant, and a dose of his regular heart medication, as well as a cane to help him walk.

“[The doctor] was like ‘O.K., there’s nothing else we can do for you today, you just gotta go upstairs,” James said, adding that the doctor refused to take X-rays.

James said that he was still unable to walk, let alone climb the stairs to the second floor, so two other incarcerated people helped carry him up the stairs and back to his bed.

“How many people do they do this to?” James asked. (Correctional Health Services said that it could not comment on James’ injuries due to patient privacy.)

On October 2, the social workers were finally able to reserve an open spot for James in the Wyndham Garden hotel. James’ next court date was October 4, and the judge and the prosecutor agreed in advance that he could be released to the Wyndham Garden hotel immediately after his court hearing in the Bronx.

That didn’t end up happening.

On October 4, he was kept in jail, rather than being taken to the Bronx court. A DOC representative told New York Focus that James was not produced for his court date because several people had recently been added to his section of the OBCC dormitory, which potentially exposed him to Covid-19. Under DOC policy, incarcerated people under Covid-19 quarantine are not brought to their court hearings unless a judge specifically requests it.

At the time that James was meant to be brought to court, staffing shortages at Rikers, with many officers calling in sick or simply not showing up to work, made it nearly impossible to follow protocols designed to prevent large-scale quarantines of incarcerated people, Gothamist reported

“I was supposed to go to court and get released,” James recalled. “Now I’m mad. I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I’m still in here and I don’t know when I’m getting out.”

Incarcerated people frequently miss scheduled court appearances because jail staff aren’t available to escort them, THE CITY reported in September.  

“I don’t think this problem’s fixed,” Nothrup said, noting that one of his current clients has missed four consecutive court dates.

“I thought I would never see sunlight”

On October 6, James was finally able to appear in court, this time via videoconference. He was cleared for release. Eight hours and ten minutes after the appearance ended—“I counted,” James said—he was brought from Rikers to the Wyndham Garden hotel.

“I cried for an hour, because I thought I would never see sunlight,” James recalled. 

James is now reacclimating to life on the outside and participating in the Fortune Society’s programming. He hopes to find work as a security guard. Above all, he’s determined not to go back to Rikers.

“Anything that will send me back is not on my radar,” he said. “I have kids. My life is worth something.”

Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
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