Deteriorating Conditions At Rikers Island | Crooked Media
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September 20, 2021
What A Day
Deteriorating Conditions At Rikers Island

In This Episode

  • An FDA panel, last week, unanimously approved a booster shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech covid vaccine for people 65 and older, and anyone at risk of severe illness. The full FDA will likely make a formal decision on boosters based on that advisory panel’s recommendations in the coming days, followed by a CDC meeting to decide who should be getting them.
  • Rikers is the main jail in New York City and the second biggest jail in America. It has always been known as an especially brutal place, but since the start of the pandemic, lawyers and public officials say conditions are now the worst the jail has seen in its 90 year history.
  • And in headlines: U.S. officials began deporting hundreds of Haitians who arrived at the Texas-Mexico border, the White House is trying to set up a call between Biden and Macron to smooth things over, and the Pentagon admitted that a drone strike in Kabul was a, “tragic mistake.”





Gideon Resnick: It’s Monday, September 20th. I’m Gideon Resnick.


Josie Duffy Rice: And I’m Josie Duffy Rice, and this is What A Day, a podcast that’s so kind and so righteous that we actually consider Ted Lasso to be, uh, pretty mean.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, he’s, he’s an asshole. I’ll say it. More like Ted Las-hole. On today’s show, Rikers Island faces even more calls for reform. Plus, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green takes aim at socialism by blowing up a Prius.


Josie Duffy Rice: But first, late last week, an FDA panel made its much-anticipated decision on booster shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in the US.


[CNBC clip] So this FDA panel of outside advisers has just voted down recommending a booster shot from Pfizer’s vaccine for people 16 and older.


Josie Duffy Rice: So that CNBC reporting the news as it happened. But Gideon, can you tell us a little bit more about why?


Gideon Resnick: OK, so listeners might remember that we were talking about this on the Friday episode. As a refresher, we said that one of the central tensions going into this meeting and this vote, that was pretty well publicized, was around whether experts had all the information that they needed to justify backing boosters. So initially, this expert panel considered boosters for the general population and they ended up voting 16 to 2 against that wide of an application. So nearly unanimous in saying it’s not super necessary for everybody. And mind you, this is all taking place right before the Biden administration had planned on beginning to make these available to that general population as soon as today. So the panel took that off the table. The broader approval was gone. Then they took a break, came back, and sort of reformulated what they would be asking for in the following vote. At that point, there was unanimous approval of a booster shot for people 65 and older and anyone at risk of severe illness. Then later on in the day—this is a very long meeting—there was also a poll among the committee members about making the Pfizer booster available for people like health care workers, emergency responders, teachers, etc., people who might not be in those other brackets that we talked about but might be exposed quite a bit. Then there was unanimous support for that as well. And for all these people that we mentioned, the recommendation is to administer this booster at least six months after the second dose.


Josie Duffy Rice: So you mentioned that the White House wanted boosters for everyone by today. So what was the administration’s reaction to this?


Gideon Resnick: There were a couple of themes that really sort of emerged from federal health officials on Sunday. One was that the Biden administration was not getting ahead of the science, but rather planning for the possibility of administering widespread boosters. And the other was that we may very well see an expansion of the recommendation down the road. This is just what we know for now. Dr. Anthony Fauci was mostly charged with addressing how the vote had altered Biden’s initial plan and what sort of potential confusion could arise from it. Here he is on CNN’s State of the Union with Jake Tapper:.


[Jake Tapper] Do you think that advisory committee made a mistake? Do you think the FDA officials should ignore the advisory committee’s recommendation?


[Dr. Anthony Fauci] No, not at all, Jake, I don’t think they made a mistake and they the FDA absolutely should not ignore them. As we said in the beginning, we would want to plan for the possibility of vaccinating all those who have gotten their initial vaccination with Pfizer. And it was always pending the evaluation of all of the totality of the data—from the United States, from Israel, and any bit of data that we could get—by the advisory committee to the FDA.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, so basically they were planning on whatever, but they were always going to let FDA call the shots.


Josie Duffy Rice: Got it. Got it. So this FDA vote is not binding. So what does that mean? What’s next?


Gideon Resnick: OK, so in the coming days, we’re likely to see the FDA make a formal decision on boosters based on what the advisory panel’s recommendations were. Then what’s going to follow is a CDC meeting to decide who should be getting them in the US. Until then, Fauci recommended that people not just go out and seek a booster, as many, many people have. Here he is again on CNN:


[clip of Dr. Anthony Fauci] Well, we are strongly recommending that people do not do that, that they abide by the recommendation. And in this case, as you know, greater than 65 and certain people 18 to 64 with different conditions in different circumstances in life. I mean, obviously, people are going to do that. It is not recommended. We recommend that people wait until you get to the point where you fall into the category where it’s recommended.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah. In fact, he went on to say in part, quote, “It is very unlikely that there’s going to be a risk there but scientifically, you don’t want to go by unlikely, you want to have some scientific proof”


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, I mean, that makes sense. And, you know, I think another major criticism of the White House pushing for this third shots for millions of Americans is that a huge share of the world’s population has yet to even have one shot.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, totally. And the Biden administration is trying to kind of do both at the same time. So this week, Biden is hosting a vaccine summit while the UN General Assembly meets. And part of his goal is to reportedly propose vaccinating 70% of the world’s population by September 2022. Their current estimates that only about 43% of the world’s population has received at least one dose, and that is disproportionately in wealthier countries. And meanwhile, the administration is also reportedly negotiating with Pfizer to get another 500 million doses that they can donate overseas. According to The New York Times, that would bring the total that the US has contributed to about 1.15 billion doses—which obviously sounds like a ton, but it represents something like a tenth of the world’s estimated need for broad immunity. There is a long, long way to go.


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, there really is.


Gideon Resnick: And the contribution of doses is just one part of this,  Right? But many global health experts have maintained that it is far from enough. They say there also needs to be the creation of vaccine manufacturing centers in other countries, the sharing of vaccine company technology, pressuring other countries to help, and more. And the World Health Organization has really urged these other countries, the United States included, not to administer boosters until the end of the year, while they can catch up with other places. More on all of this very soon. But Josie, let’s turn to another story that we reported about last week, the latest on the situation with Rikers Island.


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, so Rikers Island is in just a serious, serious state of crisis. So Rikers is the main jail in New York City and it’s the second biggest jail in America. And it has always been known as an especially brutal place. But since the start of the pandemic, lawyers and public officials say conditions are now the worst they have seen and its 90-year history. And this all stems from recent investigative reports, including by New York Public Radio and Gothamist, and it really reflects problems that we see in jails and prisons across the country as well. Despite the pandemic, people incarcerated at Rikers are unable to social distance, and they’re basically piled on top of each other. Unsurprisingly, they often don’t have access to PPE, including basic stuff like face masks. And in the jail, the rate of COVID-19 infections is now outpacing the rest of the city.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, it’s crazy. And then COVID is just one part of all of the problems that are happening there.


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, that’s right. So state assembly member Jessica Gonzales-Rojas visited the jail in recent weeks and she reported just horrifying conditions: tons of cockroaches, rotting food, garbage strewn across the floor. And she even witnessed a suicide attempt in her visit. You know, these poor conditions have had serious and tragic and often deadly results. This year alone, at least 10 people incarcerated at Rikers have died, including five people who died by suicide. And I say at least because unlike other New York law enforcement agencies, the city Department of Corrections doesn’t always publicly disclose when people in custody have died, and often it only becomes public when someone, often a whistleblower, leaks it to the press.


Gideon Resnick: Right.


Josie Duffy Rice: And now, you know, these conditions are horrible enough regardless, right, but they’re even more outrageous when you really consider who is actually incarcerated at Rikers. So the vast majority of people there are in jail pretrial, meaning they haven’t actually been convicted of a crime yet. And that’s 85% of the people at Rikers.


Gideon Resnick: Wow.


Josie Duffy Rice: And many are there because they can’t afford to pay their bail. In fact, Esias Johnson, who died in the jail earlier this month, was being held on $1 bail. And his family says despite their efforts to pay that one dollar, bureaucracy just basically made it impossible.


Gideon Resnick: Jeez. Yeah, it’s insane. And so what in particular is happening that has made officials unable or perhaps unwilling to address these issues, leading these conditions at Rikers to become even worse than they typically are?


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, I think there are a few things. One thing is that the jail is under-resourced, especially given how many people are currently incarcerated there. So there aren’t enough beds, many people don’t have sheets or blankets or shower access—you name it. And apparently many people are being forced to urinate and defecate in bags because they don’t even have access to a toilet. I mean, the situation is pretty dire. But I think even more pressing is that the jail is understaffed, given how many people are currently incarcerated there. So Rikers’ correctional officers have been calling out sick in droves. Jail officials say on any given day this past summer, almost 2,000 of the about 8,000 Rikers workers have called out sick, which is just a remarkable number. And the Department of Corrections Commissioner, Vincent Schiraldi, has expressed skepticism that all of these officers actually are, in fact, sick. He’s said that some of them seem to be seeing sick days as, quote, “an unlimited vacation pool.” Either way, a lack of staff means that everything at Rikers is functioning poorly. So usually the intake process takes about 24 hours, sometimes less. Now it’s sometimes taking days or even weeks. Meanwhile, those waiting for intake are being held in packed cells, often without even beds. Without staff many incarcerated people aren’t receiving meals. They aren’t getting any recreation time. They don’t have enough access to medical care. And things are so bad, in fact, that the corrections department has hired a telemarketing firm to call retirees and ask them to come back to their old job, while also trying to hire hundreds more guards at the same time.


Gideon Resnick: Wow, wow, wow, wow. And is that the solution that people are looking for, just more staff in there?


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, I think it’s a good question, Gideon, and I think some people do want that right? But many advocates, family members, lawyers and people who are incarcerated believe that what Rika’s actually needs to do is decarcerate. It’s better to reduce the population than increase the staffing, and especially during a deadly pandemic, right? We want as fewer people at risk as possible. And last April, the jail actually did that. They released 1,500 people after they recognize that the virus’s spread, was not only putting the jail population at serious risk, but it was contributing to the rise in the city’s COVID rate as well.


Gideon Resnick: Right.


Josie Duffy Rice: But since then, the population has increased significantly. So from 3,800 in April of 2020 to over 6,000 now. And part of that increase is due to a rollback in the state’s bail reform law, which happened after a fear-mongering campaign that inaccurately attributed the bail reform law to an increase in crime.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, that’s always how it seems to go.


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. Absolutely.


Gideon Resnick: It is really apparent, if you take any time to look, that there is an obvious crisis happening at Rikers. So what can be done to actually fix it?


Josie Duffy Rice: You know, it’s unclear if anything can be done to fix Rikers, really, given the history of brutality there. And that’s why after advocates spent years pushing to close the jail, Mayor Bill de Blasio and others agreed to shut the jail down by 2026. But that timeline has already been extended a year and now they’re saying 2027 and many advocates are concerned that it will actually just end up being an empty promise, right, that will not actually close. There are things that can happen in the meantime, though, and there are some small actions that are being taken. On Friday, New York Governor Kathy Hochul ordered the release of 191 people incarcerated at the facility and she signed the Less Is More Act, which will stop people from being locked up as they await hearings over what are called “technical parole violation.” So these violations include behavior that is not by itself considered criminal and would not in other circumstances result in an arrest. So stuff like missing a meeting, failing to report a change in address, missing curfew, not having a job, etc. Yeah. So, you know, this means that some people have been stuck in these terrible conditions at Rikers for something as benign as a missed curfew, right? It’s pretty outrageous. Given the new law, however, about 400 of these people could be released. And this is good news since obviously it’s outrageous to jail someone for a minor parole violation. And we know that decarceration is the most effective way to reduce the impact of the dysfunction we’re seeing at Rikers right now. But it’s really just not enough, right? 400 people under this new law, the 191 people that were released late last week—it’s just not enough. The mayor and governor are going to have to make many more significant cuts to the jail population if they want to stem the current state of extreme emergency. So that’s the latest for now.


Gideon Resnick: It is Monday, WAD squad, and today we’re doing a segment called “No Context Bad Vibes.”


[deep, distorted voice] No context, bad vibes.


Gideon Resnick: All right. We love it every single time. Take a listen to today’s clip:


[clip of  Rep. Marjory Taylor Green] Nancy Pelosi is sneaking the green New Deal into the $3.5 trillion dollar budget. And in 2022, I’m going to blow away the Democrats socialist agenda. [explosion] Go to the website below and sign up to win my 50-caliber gun before Joe Biden bans.


Gideon Resnick: I love that the descriptions of Democrats are them doing stuff. Like they’re like not like, oh, the parliamentarian has foiled us again, which is funny.


Josie Duffy Rice: I, you know, Nancy Pelosi just the kind of person to sneak the Green New Deal into something, right?


Gideon Resnick: Yes. For those uninitiated, because you had a nice weekend, that was an ad by Georgia representative and Crossfit athlete who never met a giant tire that she did not want to flip over, Marjorie Taylor Green. What you’re missing here because you chose listen to a podcast is the visual of Green aiming a giant sniper rifle at a Prius that has the word socialism written on it and blowing it up. We’re used to political ads from conservatives that borrow style from Michael Bay movies to make the point that human rights are bad. But this ad stood out, and Josie, I have to ask, unfortunately, as a Georgia native, what were your thoughts here?


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, you know, my state has produced some pretty embarrassing people over its time, but Margaret Taylor Green is up there. I do sort of feel like she could have a really good career given the Crossfit and the guns as just like an action movie star. And we should just veer her in a different direction. I don’t know why she wants to be a lawmaker when she could be, you know, in a C-level action movie that goes straight to video.


Gideon Resnick: The like, Expendables 4 iteration that would play at CPAC and be financed by like Mike Huckabee or something.


Josie Duffy Rice: Exactly. I mean, there is a future for her. It’s just not in doing anything honorable.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, right, right. She should be blowing up Priuses next to Sylvester Stallone and there should be no connection to the nation’s politics at all.


Josie Duffy Rice: Right.


Gideon Resnick: That was No Context Bad Vibes.


[deep, distorted voice] New context bad vibes.


Gideon Resnick: We’ll be back after some ads.


[ad break]


Gideon Resnick: Let’s wrap up with some headlines.


[sung] Headlines.


Gideon Resnick: U.S. officials yesterday began to deport hundreds of Haitians who arrived at the Texas-Mexico border recently, with thousands more sent to temporary detention centers. An unprecedented migrant encampment of more than 12,000 people had gathered under the international bridge connecting Del Rio, Texas, and Ciudad Acuna in Mexico. Some had fled the country following the assassination of Haiti’s president in July and an earthquake in August that killed more than 2,000 people. Others had been in South America since a devastating earthquake leveled the country in 2010. They migrated to the U.S. in order to seek asylum, but three flights of deported migrants landed in Port au Prince yesterday. Haitian officials, meanwhile, are pleading with the US to stop the deportations as they do not know where the thousands of deportees will live. Migrants still at the border are currently without adequate access to water, food and sanitation. And the Biden administration is facing criticism for this growing humanitarian crisis, especially given the promise of having a more humane border policy.


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, unbelievable and just so tragic for people who are coming from Haiti. The Pentagon admitted that a drone strike that killed 10 civilians, including 7 children in Kabul, was a, quote, “tragic mistake.” I’ll say do. The military initially announced they had hit an ISIS vehicle packed with explosives on August 29 as U.S. troops were chaotically withdrawing from Afghanistan. However, the missile hit a vehicle that was driven by Zemerai Ahmadi, an employee at a U.S. humanitarian organization, and nine members of his family. On Friday, the head of U.S. Central Command, General Frank McKenzie, told reporters that it is unlikely there was any connection between ISIS-K, the Afghanistan branch of ISIS, and Ahmadi or his vehicle. He added, quote “This strike was taken and the earnest belief that it would prevent an imminent threat to forces at the airport.” Ahmadi surviving family members now demand that the government investigates who fired the drone, that the military holds that person or persons responsible, and that the U.S. gives them financial compensation for their enormous losses.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah. Following up on the nuclear submarine deal between the US, the UK and Australia from last week, France has amped up its criticism of the $56 billion agreement that authorities there are calling a betrayal. Last Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron personally made the decision to recall all of the country’s ambassadors to the US and Australia—wow—France’s foreign minister accused the US and Australia of lying and being dishonest, and warned that this recall was just the tip of the iceberg. According to him, Australia didn’t tell France that it was breaking its shipbuilding agreement—you never want to break one of those—with them until just an hour before Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison made the announcement public. France has also canceled a summit it was supposed to have with the UK this week. And as of last night, the White House was trying to set a call between Biden and Macron to smooth things over.


Gideon Resnick: Whooh. A lot going on there. ByteDance, the company behind the Chinese version of TikTok is doing its part to make sure kids don’t doom scroll the day away. That’s something I have no experience with, I’ve never done it, I know nothing about it.


Gideon Resnick: Oh no, mm mm.


Josie Duffy Rice: Don’t ask any more questions. Users 14 years old and under will now only be able to access the short-form video app Douyin through a so-called youth mode, which limits their time to 40 minutes a day and only between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. On top of the time limit, ByteDance said that content available on youth mode will include educational posts, such as science experiments, museum exhibitions and, quote, “beautiful scenery across the country.” The only viral dance these kids can watch is the dance of the dragonfly as it flits across the pond. So this move is part of a larger effort by the Chinese government to reduce the amount of time teens spend playing online. Just last month, a new law was set limiting online gameplay for kids 18 and under to just one hour per day on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and public holidays. China might be gaining on us economically, but we are about to destroy them in a Fortnite.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, I hope they never forget that.


Josie Duffy Rice: They never will. This is how we win.


Gideon Resnick: It is. And those are the headlines. One more thing before we go. The stakes could not be higher as we head into 2022—that’s a real year that is approaching—if Democrats do not hold the U.S. House and increase the Senate majority, there are going to be Trump Republicans that could take power, the progressive agenda will be all but dead, and don’t get us started on the topic of the Supreme Court.


Josie Duffy Rice: Seriously. But with more than a year to go, we can actually get to work right now supporting organizations in key states working to register voters well ahead of registration deadlines, and then have sustained engagement with these voters much earlier than usual. And that could make all the difference next year.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, you can head to VoteSaveAmerica dot com/nooffyears to chip into Crooked’s No Off Year fund, where your donation is going to support frontline efforts in Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin—places where new voters will help make the difference in the ability to win in 2022 and beyond. That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, keep your Prius away from Marjorie Taylor Gideon please, and tell your friends to listen.


Josie Duffy Rice: And if you are into reading, and not just poems about dragonflies on ponds like I am, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at I’m Josie Duffy Rice.


Gideon Resnick: I’m Gideon Resnick.


[together] And don’t doom scroll the day away!


Gideon Resnick: Get outside and befriend a dragonfly. You know.


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah.


Gideon Resnick: They’re scary, but I don’t know.


Josie Duffy Rice: It’s already too late for me. The day is doom scrolled. It’s who I am.


Gideon Resnick: Yes. I got a call this one. Tomorrow I’ll be better for sure. What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Charlotte Landes. Sonia Htoon and Jazzi Marine are our associate producers. Our head writer is Jon Millstein, and our executive producers are Leo Duran and me. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.