The Summer of Hell at Rikers Island and the Class Action Lawsuit that Followed

Photo by Saad Chaudhry on Unsplash

Caleigh Harris, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

I. Introduction

“Not even animals should be locked in a cage and ignored,” former Rikers Island detainee, Samuel Semple, said when asked about his experience at the jail earlier this year.[1] Semple and Jerelle Dunn are the two named plaintiffs in a class action suit against the City of New York (hereinafter the “City”) for the cruel and unusual atrocities committed at Rikers Island.[2] On November 2, 2021, Semple and Dunn filed a class action complaint alleging multiple constitutional violations committed at Rikers Island, with the proposed class consisting of persons who were on Rikers Island on or after April 1, 2021.[3]

This article will focus mainly on the violation of the Eight Amendment of the United States Constitution at Rikers Island and other prison systems across the country. Part II of this article will summarize the Complaint filed against the City and the conditions at Rikers, as well as the constitutional standards for determining an Eight Amendment violation. Consequently, Part III will argue that many carceral systems throughout the country often violate the inalienable right against cruel and unusual punishment and will offer proposed solutions by community organizers and abolitionists.

II. Background

Rikers Island is the main jail complex that houses incarcerated persons in New York City.[4] The compound’s infamy and disorder are well-documented, with everyone from legislators to news outlets alike condemning the state of the jail. The conditions at Rikers have lead state legislators to refer to the complex as “Horror Island,” news outlets to dub peoples’ experiences as the “Summer of Hell,” and the Department of Corrections (“DOC”) Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi to admit that the Island was facing a humanitarian crisis.[5] Conditions at Rikers have been woefully inadequate for years, yet the current crisis has risen to unacceptable levels.[6] In light of these abhorrent conditions, Jerelle Dunn and Samuel Semple filed a class action lawsuit claiming violations of detainees’ Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights afforded by the U.S. Constitution as well as negligence by the City.[7]

The Eighth Amendment prohibits the government from imposing “cruel and unusual punishments” on its people.[8] However, the definition of “cruel” and the ensuing constitutional standard against such punishment is not so obvious. Scholars theorize that “cruel” could refer to either the punisher’s intent or the effect of such punishment.[9] While the Supreme Court has not solved this debate explicitly, it seems to have implicitly adopted the cruel-intent reading, rather than cruel-effect.[10] In Baze v. Rees, the Court held that a lethal injection protocol did not violate the Eight Amendment; in a concurring opinion, Justice Thomas argued that for lethal injection protocol to be unconstitutional, it must be “purposely designed to inflict pain and suffering beyond that necessary to cause death.”[11]

Beyond the definition of “cruel,” additional legal debate surrounds the standard for determining an Eight Amendment violation.[12] Courts have adopted three different approaches to attempt to answer this question: the totality-of-conditions approach, the core-conditions approach, and the per se approach.[13] The totality-of-conditions approach analyzes the prison environment on a large scale in determining whether conditions violate the Eight Amendment.[14] The core-conditions approach focuses specifically on the deprivation of food, clothing, shelter, sanitation, medical care, and personal safety. For an Eight Amendment violation under this approach, the prison must completely deprive someone of a single core-condition; the overall atmosphere is not a relevant consideration.[15] Finally, the per se method generally finds conditions that “offend contemporary standards of human decency” to be unconstitutional.[16] The totality-of-conditions and per se approaches are thought to more appropriately encapsulate Eighth Amendment violations because they allow for the cumulative experience to be taken into account and/or allowing for certain circumstances to automatically be considered per se violations.[17]

In Rhodes v. Chapman, the Supreme Court addressed the issue of overcrowding as it relates to the Eighth Amendment, ultimately resolving whether assigning two people to a single-person cell constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.[18] The Court found that “[D]ouble celling. . . did not lead to deprivations of essential food, medical care or sanitation,” and therefore did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.[19] In this way, the Supreme Court implicitly supported the core-conditions approach to evaluating a claim of cruel and unusual punishment.[20]

The class action complaint against the City alleges a variety of constitutional violations stemming from overcrowding, lack of staffing and medical care, crumbling infrastructure, unsanitary conditions, and ensuing violence.[21] The DOC has blamed the staffing shortage as the cause of such deplorable conditions, yet Dunn and Semple make clear that the City, politicians, and prosecutors are equally at fault for the lack of leadership and order at Rikers.[22] To be sure, there is a crisis with staffing at Rikers: in July 2021, 65% of uniformed staff members at the DOC were unavailable to work, leaving the rest to work 24-hour shifts in some cases.[23]

The Complaint asserts that this case is not about a single incident resulting in a civil rights violation, but rather the totality of horrific conditions that “make Rikers Island unbearable and unconstitutional.”[24] For Jerelle Dunn, his stay at Rikers began on September 8, 2021.[25] Dunn was placed in a holding cell with 30-40 people that was meant to hold no more than five to ten; the toilet in this cell did not work, leaving some men to relieve themselves on the floor.[26] As his stay continued, Dunn was forced to sleep on the floor, use vermin-infested showers, eat inedible food, and dorm with those who had tested positive for Covid-19.[27] For Samuel Semple, conditions were just as bad when he arrived at the Island on September 3, 2021. Semple was trapped in a cell with 40 other men for eight days, where he was not permitted to shower or given a toothbrush.[28] He suffered from several injuries during his time on the island and was not permitted to seek psychiatric nor medical care.[29]

III. Discussion

The conditions on Rikers Island are nothing less than a humanitarian crisis and a deplorable violation of human rights. While there are jurisprudential debates about Eight Amendment violations, this case clearly satisfies all possible and applicable standards offered for finding these violations. Baze implicitly supported the cruel-intent standard for finding cruel punishment, yet intent and effect are inherently tied in this case.[30] To find cruel intent, the punisher does not always need to have affirmative malintent, but may instead have a “conscious indifference to” the pain and punishment inflicted on incarcerated individuals.[31] The Complaint filed against the City cited clear examples which showed that officials have known about the disorder at Rikers and have done little to nothing to fix these conditions; in fact, the DOC Commissioner, Mayor Bill DeBlasio, and the Department of Justice have acknowledged the dehumanizing environment that exists on the Island without taking substantive action.[32] Despite various court orders and press conferences acknowledging the situation, conditions continue to worsen amid a historic pandemic, rising to the level of bona fide atrocities. These admissions by various government officials indicate an awareness of the problem, yet the lack of action demonstrates a clear indifference––fitting the classification of cruel intent. Along with the cruel effect of overcrowding and depriving human beings of basic needs, the lack of authoritative action is determinative: the City has acted with cruel intent toward those incarcerated at Rikers. Authorities have inflicted harm on incarcerated individuals at Rikers and later failed––and continue to fail––to mitigate this harm, despite the actual knowledge of these conditions.

Additionally, the Complaint sufficiently described conditions at Rikers Island as to meet any of the three possible constitutional standards for finding an Eighth Amendment violation. For example, the totality-of-conditions approach uses a cumulative impact inquiry.[33] In the case at hand, the Complaint paints an excruciating picture of the cumulative impact of the conditions at Rikers––in which individuals were subjected to such dehumanizing conditions as to leave them hungry, filthy, and without proper medical care.

The more stringent standard, the core conditions approach, is also met in this case. Many detainees, including Semple, were deprived of necessary medication, inadvertently pepper-sprayed, and shoved into close quarters with people who tested positive for Covid-19.[34] Medical care at Rikers is virtually unheard of, and with the drastic staff shortage, many individuals are missing their scheduled medical appointments due to the lack of available guards.[35] Therefore, a complete deprivation of medical attention has occurred at Rikers in clear violation of the Eight Amendment under the core conditions approach.

Under any of these evaluative standards, the Complaint against the City, without a doubt, has merit. While the conditions at Rikers are horrific enough to shock the conscious, many other prison systems around the nation are silently violating the Eight Amendment, unbeknownst to the general public. Nelson Mandela wrote, “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones––and South Africa treated its imprisoned African citizens like animals.”[36] Semple related to Mandela’s assessment during his time on Rikers, as he felt like an animal locked in a cage and neglected.[37] Rikers is not a standalone atrocity––the United States carceral system is rife with mistreatment of incarcerated individuals.

For example, the jail director of the Cuyahoga County jail in Ohio was sentenced to nine months for creating horrific jail conditions, in which he deprived detainees of food, running water, and even blocked an effort to hire more nursing staff.[38] Unfortunately, similar conditions are shockingly commonplace all across the nation: in Mississippi, Alabama, Nebraska, and Texas––just to name a few.[39] Jail directors, DOC commissioners, and state legislators must be held accountable for these conditions in order for real change to occur.  

Human beings deserve human decency, regardless of the crimes they have committed. Further, this right to human decency is codified as the Eighth Amendment. In jails, many of these detained individuals have not yet gone to trial and are still presumed innocent under our criminal justice system. Thus, the government subjects people to degrading conditions on an indiscriminate basis in these cases. Prison conditions are a human rights issue and should not be ignored simply because an individual is incarcerated. In short, an incarcerated human is entitled to human rights as a matter of both natural law and the United States Constitution; the incarceration of that person does nothing to negate their undeniable humanity.

There are many movements throughout the nation and world for the reform of–and in some cases the complete abolition of–prisons.[40] The Centre for Justice & Reconciliation released a guide for improving prison conditions, centered around restorative justice ideals.[41] The guide calls for improved activities and programming for individuals, basic sanitation and personal hygiene standards, the opportunity to cultivate and grow healthy food, and the speedy release and furlough of people awaiting court.[42]

The ultimate challenge is engaging lawmakers to care about prison conditions and to work tirelessly to improve this humanitarian crisis. Reform will only happen with policy aimed toward incarcerated individuals. Yet, money is not necessarily the answer. Voters must be cognizant of legislators’ platform concerning prison reform––this includes reaching out to local officials and urging them to hold prison leadership accountable, as well as being informed voters around election time. The criminal justice system is in dire need of reform––sentencing guidelines are increasing the time people spend in prison and over-policing of Black and Brown communities is leading to many people spending time behind bars for petty crimes.

IV. Conclusion

Hopefully, with the most recent class action lawsuit facing Rikers Island, the City will reduce the amount of people it sends to jail there and work on serious reform. The Complaint already lays a solid foundation for a successful lawsuit. Even though the City has ignored court orders in the past, Rikers is entering a dire era in which change needs to be made. Prison reform and abolition depend on the continual fight for those who are incarcerated––a population that remains out sight. Not even animals deserve to be encaged, neglected, and left without basic needs to survive––yet that is exactly what is happening to human beings at Rikers. The values of our nation dictate that all men are created equal, however the atrocities at Rikers Island are a clear indication of failed policy, oversight, and a failure in our values.


[1] Graham Rayman, Former Rikers Island inmates file lawsuit seeking compensation for all detainees who endured the NYC jail’s ‘summer of hell,’ New York Daily News (Nov. 3, 2021), https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/ny-class-action-lawsuit-rikers-island-inmates-conditions-20211103-umvqi65e4vgzlo3v64a7mdw2em-story.html.

[2] Plaintiff’s Complaint, Dunn et al. vs. The City of New York, 1:21-cv-09012, Nov. 2, 2021.

[3] Id. at ¶ 11.

[4] Although many of the cited sources in this article refer to incarcerated people as “inmates,” this term has fallen out among many abolitionist groups, as it effectively dehumanizes people who have gone through the carceral system. As such, this article will not use the term “inmate” in reference to incarcerated individuals. See e.g. Jodhy Polk, Why We Don’t Use the Word ‘Inmate’ on This Site, How To Justice, https://howtojustice.org/ive-been-in-your-shoes/why-we-dont-use-word-inmate/ (last visited Nov. 14, 2021).

[5] Rayman, supra note 1; Complaint for Dunn v. The City of New York at ¶ 2.

[6] Id. at ¶ 1.

[7] Id. at ¶¶ 6, 169.

[8] U.S. Const. amend. VIII.

[9] John F. Stinneford, The Original Meaning of “Cruel,” 105 Geo L.J. 441, 444 (2017). “Cruel” may refer to “the punisher’s intent––delight in, or conscious indifference to, the pain of others,” or it may refer “to the effect of the punishment, not the intent that motivates it.”

[10] Id.

[11] 553 U.S. 35, 96 (2008) (Thomas, J., concurring in the judgement) (emphasis added).

[12] See generally Susanna Y. Chung, Prison Overcrowding: Standards in Determining Eighth Amendment Violations, 68 Fordham L. Rev. 2351 (2000).

[13] Id. at 2352.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id. at 2368.

[17] Id. at 2353.

[18] 452 U.S. 337 (1981).

[19] Id. at 348.

[20] Id.

[21] Complaint for Dunn v. The City of New York at ¶ 10.

[22] Id. at ¶¶ 2, 5.

[23] Id. at ¶¶ 32, 27.

[24] Id. at ¶ 49.

[25] Id. at ¶ 111.

[26] Id. at ¶¶ 115-16.

[27] Id. at ¶¶ 125-34.

[28] Id. at ¶¶ 139-44.

[29] Id. at ¶¶ 146-54.

[30] Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35 (2008).

[31] Stinneford, supra note 9, at 444.

[32] Complaint for Dunn v. The City of New York, ¶¶ 1, 18-9.

[33] Chung, supra note 12, at 2353.

[34] Complaint for Dunn v. The City of New York, ¶¶ 91, 111-55.

[35] Id. at ¶ 92.

[36] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (1994), https://zelalemkibret.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/the-autobiography-of-nelson-mandela.pdf.  

[37] Supra note 1.

[38] Cory Shaffer, Judge sends Cuyahoga County’s convicted former jail director to jail: ‘I don’t know how you can live with yourself’, Cleveland.com (Oct. 8, 2021), https://www.cleveland.com/court-justice/2021/10/judge-sends-cuyahoga-countys-convicted-former-jail-director-to-jail-i-dont-know-how-you-can-live-with-yourself.html.

[39] American Civil Liberties Union, Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Conditions, Accessed Nov. 14, 2021. https://www.aclu.org/news/by-issue/cruel-inhuman-and-degrading-conditions/.

[40] See generally Ruth Wilson Gilmore and James Kilgore, The Case for Abolition, The Marshall Project (June 19, 2019), https://www.themarshallproject.org/2019/06/19/the-case-for-abolition.

[41] 10 Keys to Improving Conditions in Overcrowded Prisons, Centre for Justice & Reconciliation (last visited Nov. 14, 2021), http://restorativejustice.org/am-site/media/overcrowding-en.pdf.

[42] Id.