During much of her three years awaiting trial in New York’s Rikers Island jail, Candie Hailey was locked in a solitary confinement cell ventilated by a mold-covered air duct. The purpose of the vent was, of course, to pump fresh air into her 6-by-10-foot concrete room, but the mold infestation instead added to an array of hazards and discomforts that made her life unbearable at Rikers, where she made multiple attempts at suicide. “There was big, dark, gray, blackish mildew around the air vent and that’s where the air was coming from,” Hailey told me. “It’s what I was inhaling — it smelled like death.”
Hailey, who says she developed persisting asthma as a result of mold exposure, described overall conditions at Rikers that were so punishing not even the guards — who spent only a fraction of their time in the building — could withstand them. Hailey says that one officer implored her to complain to authorities about the conditions, as the employee feared she would be punished for doing so herself.
“‘Please call 311 or somebody,’” Hailey recalled a guard telling her. “That’s how bad it was.”
Hailey’s and her guards’ experiences are not unique to New York’s infamous island jail. On the issue of hazardous mold alone, numerous prison employees across the country have asserted that they cannot bear even their limited exposure to a condition that inmates must live with day in and day out, according to workplace safety complaints submitted…