New York Governor Hochul Orders Release of 191 Inmates Amid Overcrowding Horrors at Rikers

New York Governor Kathy Hochul is directing the state parole board to immediately release 191 prison inmates amid the crisis at Rikers Island that has worsened over the course of the pandemic.

On Friday, Hochul signed a new law to help reduce incarceration among those who have been jailed due to technical parole violations, such as missing curfew, marijuana use or arriving late to a meeting with a parole officer.

Advocates estimate that approximately 270 inmates on Rikers—nearly five percent of the total jail population—are currently being held for technical violations of their parole.

"They have served their sentences under Less is More, but they should not have to wait until the enactment date," Hochul said.

Under the Less is More Act, Hochul also ordered around 200 inmates at Rikers to be transferred to state prison facilities to relieve severe overcrowding.

The bill, which passed the state legislature this year, is aimed at preventing parolees from being sent back to prison for non-criminal violations of their parole and will go into effect in March.

Kathy Hochul Rikers Island Prison Jail Inmates
New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed the Less is More Act on Friday. Above, Hochul talks to reporters at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum on September 8, 2021, in New York City. Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Rikers has long been notorious for brutal conditions and violence, but the facility has been particularly hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

New York's Department of Corrections suffered widespread staffing shortages after more than 2,200 employees became infected with COVID-19. The enormous number of employees on sick leave has led conditions at Rikers to degrade quickly.

Reports have emerged that the facility was forced to hold people in units without beds, that understaffing caused delays in distribution of food, water, and medication and that some areas are were covered in garbage and urine.

This year, Rikers also saw its largest death toll in years after ten people at the city jail died—at least five by suicide.

Earlier this week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled reforms to improve conditions at the facility that include requiring absent prison guards to get a doctor's note if they're out for more than a day, speeding inmate intake procedures and fixing infrastructure problems.

On Friday, Hochul said, "Today is about protecting human life, the lives of the people who are incarcerated as well as correctional officers."

"It's also about protecting human dignity," she added. "This questions who we are as a people when we can allow situations as we've seen at Rikers [to] exist in a prosperous, mighty city like New York. The fact that this exists is an indictment on everyone."