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Amid Disorder, Judge Releases Rikers Island 'Fight Night' Inmate

The men had got along in New York City's Rikers Island jail complex and had even been friendly, but now they were face to face in a jail cell — and a gang leader ordered them to fight. Unable to refuse him, the men began to pummel one another while, outside the cell, other detainees jostled and cheered. Standing nearby, a correction officer watched without intervening. Neither the fights nor the injuries were mentioned in any official report. A judge ordered the release of one man who was forced to participate in the “fight night” because the Department of Correction had failed to protect him. The department’s inability to manage the jail system as the man awaited trial on robbery charges, Justice April Newbauer said, “was tantamount to deliberate indifference,” reports the New York Times. The ruling served as an extraordinary rebuke of the Correction Department’s leadership, underscoring the dangers faced by detainees and guards alike in a jail system in which slashings and stabbings have surged. Some detainees have been left to fend for themselves. It also could offer a blueprint for others seeking pretrial release amid the disorder that has gripped Rikers Island since the pandemic began in 2020.

A Correction Department spokeswoman said the agency was investigating the events described in the court filings. “We take any claims of unsafe conditions in our facilities very seriously,” she said. “We remain fully committed to creating a safer and more humane environment in our jails.” The Times obtained jail surveillance camera footage gathered by New York County Defender Services as part of its client’s petition to go free. Depicting the fight night and an attempted stabbing, the videos, along with court records and interviews, offer vivid glimpses of the lawlessness that has taken hold on Rikers Island, where violence has soared to levels not seen since the jails overflowed during the crack epidemic in the 1990s. “People marched for George Floyd — I think there needs to be a similar movement for the people on Rikers Island,” said Eric Burse,of New York County Defender Services who represented the man who was released. “Those people over there don’t have much of a voice. They are locked up. It is incumbent upon regular ordinary citizens to sound the alarm just like my client did.”

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