Without laundry service, Rikers detainees wash clothes in toilets and showers, lawyers say

Photo of author

By Dan Sears

Detainees at the Rikers Island jails have not had regular laundry service for at least a year, leaving them to wash their clothes in toilet bowls and on their bodies in the shower and to dry wet sheets on beds and in cells, according to three attorneys who represent detainees.

The new city jails boss is set to go in front of the city jails oversight agency Wednesday to address complaints about a lack of laundry services and propose a plan to fix the issue.

Department spokesperson Annais Morales said last month the New York City Department of Correction received 27 complaints about laundry issues, noting the complainants “represented fewer than half of one percent of the entire population.”

She said linen and uniform exchange occurs on a regular basis and detainees have two opportunities per week to exchange linen and clothing for a new set or use a “DIY” in-house laundry service.

“The department takes every complaint seriously, ensures they are thoroughly investigated, and works to effectively resolve substantiated complaints,” Morales said.

Under the city Board of Correction’s minimum standards, the DOC must give detainees one shirt, one pair of pants, two pairs of underwear, two pairs of socks, a pair of shoes and a sweater. The standards require the clothes to be laundered or exchanged at the department’s expense twice per week. Detainees also receive two sheets, which are supposed to be laundered weekly by the department.

But advocates for detainees say laundry service is inconsistent at Rikers, if it’s provided at all. They say this has led to detainees finding ways to wash their own clothes and bedding, or simply living in filthy items — whether or not those incarcerated actively complain about it.

See also  NYPD is ticketing more 'ghost cars,' but congestion pricing could drive a surge in new toll dodgers

Last week, Michael Klinger, a jail services attorney with the nonprofit Brooklyn Defender Services, filed a new complaint with the board and DOC on behalf of a man who says he and others detained in the Otis Bantum Correctional Center have not had access to laundry services in two months.

When laundry services are not provided, detainees find ways to wash their own clothes, Klinger said. He added that people given plastic storage basins wash their bedding and clothes in them, but many don’t have a storage basin.

“And when that happens, they tend to have to wash their clothing on their bodies in the shower,” the attorney said.

Detainees either buy laundry detergent at their own expense through the commissary or use body soap, according to Klinger. To dry their clothes, “some people lay their clothing out on their bed and that makes their bed damp, which may exacerbate mold problems,” he said. “Some choose just to wear their soaking wet clothes.”

Washing one’s own clothing and bedding is even harder for those who have disabilities or medical conditions, attorneys for detainees told Gothamist.

One detainee in a wheelchair with two broken legs who is currently held in the North Infirmary Command — where detainees who are seniors or have medical issues are housed — has been complaining about a lack of laundry services since last summer, said Bronx Defenders Prisoners’ Rights Project director Tahanee Dunn.

See also  A Manhattan dilemma: Is decent rent worth living in a construction zone?

She said detainees there have gone up to two months without getting new sheets and towels and were forced to wash clothes and bedding in the shower, buckets or toilet bowls. A number of people in the unit suffer from incontinence and have accidents on themselves or their beds, according to Dunn — and then they’re unable to access clean laundry, leaving them in dangerously unhygienic conditions.

Dunn said her client who is in a wheelchair got an infection while in the infirmary. “I can’t say for sure that the infection that my client got was a direct result of laundry services, but certainly it did not help that he was sleeping on sheets that had not been changed in six weeks,” she said.

Attorneys said complaints about a lack of clean laundry has been a “steady, ever-present” issue going back years in almost every unit of the Rikers jail complex. If only a small percentage of detainees actually file complaints, the attorneys said, it may be because they’re preoccupied with other matters.

“Laundry is a passive issue, usually our clients have other things going on,” said New York County Defender Services corrections specialist Rachel Sznajderman. “But to my knowledge, for as long as I’ve been doing this job, which is almost two and a half years at this point, I am not aware of a laundry service, and if it does exist, it’s not consistent.”

See also  Sinéad O'Connor death: Mourners in Ireland pay their respects to late singer at funeral procession

The Bronx Defenders will frequently send clothes to detainees just so they can be clean for court hearings and see family members, Dunn said. “People were coming in a really undignified state, you know — dirty, smelling bad, feeling a lot of shame and embarrassment around that,” she added.

Sznajderman said her team also sends permissible clothing items to clients at Rikers on an almost daily basis, at considerable expense, but only about half the items they send make it to detainees.

The city is facing a potential federal takeover of its jails system. Correction Commissioner Lynelle Maginley-Liddie will go before the Board of Correction Wednesday in her very first board meeting in the role and is anticipated to answer questions about laundry and other issues affecting detainees.

Rate this post

Leave a Comment