Brooklyn Defender Services spearheads relief for Rikers inmates following record heatwave

August 4, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
Rikers Island complex
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The latest heatwave might have broken, but the summer is not over, which means that concerns over the welfare of those incarcerated at Rikers Island remain. Brooklyn Defender Services, an organization providing legal services to the marginalized, is stepping in with an initiative to address the searing heat and inhumane conditions within Rikers Island.

Lisa Schreibersdorf, executive director of Brooklyn Defender Services, who is helping raise funds to help Rikers inmates dealing with the harsh summer heat. Eagle file photo by Caroline Ourso

Last week, heat indices in the city hit triple digits for several consecutive days, making July 2023 the world’s hottest month on record. While much of the city’s populace took refuge in air-conditioned spaces, the incarcerated population at Rikers found little relief. Many within the facility lack access to air conditioning and even basic laundry services, compounding the discomfort of the scorching heat.

“It’s an issue that seems to be within DOC’s control, something they can anticipate,” said Lucas Marquez, director of civil rights and law reform at Brooklyn Defender Services. “And yet they’re really not able to make sure that the conditions are humane for the people that are forced to be there.”

The Department of Correction’s (DOC) inaction has been a sticking point, leading Brooklyn Defender Services to seek donations and provide essential items to incarcerated individuals. The organization’s Critical Items Fund has been at the forefront of these efforts. This fund allows them to send packages filled with socks, underwear, and t-shirts to their incarcerated clients, helping them stay comfortable amid the intense heat.

“The crisis at Rikers goes beyond just the heat. There are numerous systemic failures by the DOC to protect people’s health and safety,” added Marquez.

While those incarcerated should not have to rely on donated goods to keep cool, the organization says they’re receiving daily requests for more items. With the funds from the Critical Items Fund, Brooklyn Defender Services aims to send more new lightweight clothing to those incarcerated, ensuring they have the items they need to endure this unprecedented heatwave.

The situation at Rikers Island highlights a systemic failure by the DOC to maintain humane conditions within its facilities. Despite a yearly “heat action plan” from the DOC, outlining measures such as access to air conditioning, ice, and cold showers, there are numerous reports of these strategies falling short.

With the recent heatwave highlighting these inadequacies, Brooklyn Defender Services is calling for action and support. Their fundraising drive aims to make a tangible difference in the lives of those enduring the unbearable heat and discomfort.

The ongoing humanitarian crisis at Rikers adds urgency to their call. While plans are in place to replace Rikers Island with new borough-based jails, featuring climate control features throughout, these won’t materialize until 2027 at the earliest.

In the meantime, organizations like Brooklyn Defender Services are stepping in to alleviate the suffering and fight for the rights of the incarcerated.

People can donate to BDS’ Critical Items Fund by going to:


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