The Crisis at Rikers

When NYSNA member Alicia Butler, RN, arrived for work at Rikers Island on August 2, 2020, she wasn’t expecting to become a patient herself that day, but that is exactly what happened.

A registered nurse with nineteen years at Rikers, no amount of her training could have prepared her for the trauma she experienced that day. Butler was sitting at her desk with just one other aid in the mental health unit located within one of two inmate housing areas when an inmate, with whom she’d had no out-of-the-ordinary experiences in the past, calmly reached over the half-door, unlatched the lock and entered the space. “He said no words as he was entering. Said no word the entire time,” Butler shared. The man started hitting her violently, physically assaulting her. She doesn’t remember what happened during the attack except that her glasses flew off her face. Somehow, she can recall officers coming and getting the man off her and then, finding and retrieving her glasses. Medical emergency was called, she was taken out by stretcher and cared for in the clinic by a doctor with whom she’d worked alongside for most of her career. “Everyone was very comforting to me. It was so personal to be cared for by the caring.”

Wounded at Work

Suffering multiple abrasions to her arms, face and legs, Ms. Butler has also endured multiple surgeries and treatments for her knees and hips. She has not been able to physically work since.

According to an New York Times article, 2021 was the deadliest year in New York City Jails since 2015. Rikers Island has had ten deaths alone. Safety at Rikers, a top issue for Butler and the other 230 registered nurses there, has plummeted for all staff, but specifically for nurses.

Once known as “The City’s Island of the Damned” and now known as “Horror Island”, it is no secret that Rikers Island is in crisis. As New York state’s largest jail complex, Rikers Island itself is over 400 acres and includes ten different facilities with up to 10,000 detainees per day. The facility is designed to hold those who have not yet been convicted and are awaiting trial as well as those who have been convicted and are serving shorter sentences. Detainees housed at Rikers include men, women and adolescents. Of course, many people were oblivious to the treatment of youth at the facility until the tragic suicide of Kalief Browder who was held at the facility for three years without being convicted of a crime. Browder described being beaten by detainees and guards. His case gained national attention, but it was not enough to heal the trauma he’d experienced while there.

Troubled History

Rikers has been plagued with violence for decades. In 2017, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio backed a 10-year plan to close Rikers. As recent as mid-September, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio and Governor Kathy Hochul began releasing and relocating detainees under legislation implementation like the Less is More Act. However, Butler says this is the wrong focus. “They are not addressing the safety issue. They are clouding and preventing the clear issue, which is nurses in an unsafe environment. This is unheard of in any other environment. It’s not okay. Leadership and city hall need to make a paramount goal, they need to make it safe for us and not continue to dance around the issue.”

Nadyne Pressley, a thirteen-year RN veteran at Rikers, and NYSNA member says, “It started getting worse these past couple years, but we’ve always had safety problems.” From simple, yet highly important requests like locks being changed, there is no rapid action, no reaction to requests to the Department of Corrections (DOC). Instead, there are meetings, and emails sent with no immediate response, leaving issues to be addressed months after occurring. If at all. She adds, “There are no measures to stop things from happening. When action is finally taken, it is reactive. It’s not enough! It’s not preventative.”

Pressley points to recent and escalating safety concerns, “There is only one officer in the clinic while patients are seeing clinical staff and they’re not even in sight of the patient. They can attack,” she explains. Due to lack of staffing, “Patients end up lingering in the clinic and that’s the major problem.” Pressley says this leaves her looking over shoulder constantly.

Butler is fighting back. And she’s not alone. At a recent testimony before New York City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee where she represented 43,000 registered nurses across the state, she stated, “We have seen a lack of accountability from DOC and NYC Health+Hospitals regarding conditions in our city jails. The number of detainees is growing while staffing shortages create a constant crisis mode for all workers, including our nurses.”

Safety First

Butler has been on medical leave since her attack. This incident has made her more active in her Local Bargaining Unit (LBU). She sites this as being therapeutic because as she says, “I still have a purpose.” That purpose has become to get nurses to speak up, to use their voices. “We can’t wait for the worst thing to happen, or for it to be you before we speak up. Because tomorrow it could be. Find your voice, advocate and advocate loudly.” Butler adds, “We keep our problems to ourselves or our immediate work environment. If we speak up, we find others could be experiencing the same thing. When we join together in numbers, we are able to exact change.”

This speaks to the fact that safety, clearly, is not just an issue at Rikers. Nurses statewide have experienced safety issues which were exacerbated due to COVID-19. For example, January 2022 will see a new staffing mandate go into effect requiring clinical staffing committees in New York state hospitals and nursing homes.

Even amidst this very dangerous moment, both Butler and Pressley continue to advocate for their patients, co-workers and for themselves. Butler says, “Most nurses at Rikers have a real compassion for what they do and are very dedicated to his population. Even before this trying time—they feel a commitment to the population. There is not much that will keep them from continuing the work.”

Pressley adds, “I love taking care of the patients and I want change. I want to change how it is on the island and to make a better environment. I know it can be better.”


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