The time to close Rikers Island is now

NewYorkNonprofit Media

Closing Rikers Island has been both a professional and personal goal for many years. My first experience with New York City’s human grist mill happened when I was only 16 years old and was detained at Rikers on a shoplifting accusation. On one of my first days I was attacked by a group of residents while the correction officers looked on and laughed. I emerged with four stab wounds inflicted by writing pens melted and fashioned into shanks. I survived and earned respect, but I also learned that the correction officers didn’t care if I lived or died. Unfortunately, my story is not unique, and conditions have not changed. Brutality and neglect are embedded in Rikers Island’s DNA.

It is true that there have been previous efforts to close Rikers Island, once during the Koch administration in the late 1970s, and again under Mayor Bloomberg. But this time is different; this time the stars are aligned. The crime rate in New York City is the lowest it has been since 1961. The Department of Justice has weighed in with a scathing critique accusing the institution of a “systematic culture of violence” that is “more inspired by the 'Lord of the Flies' than any legitimate philosophy of humane detention.” The City Council speaker has appointed a Special Independent Commission to look into closing Rikers, and more and more public officials are joining the call.

Most critically, unlike previous efforts, today’s #CLOSErikers campaign is committed to building the public support and momentum needed to push the envelope. The coalition’s current roster of 86 organizations represents thousands of New Yorkers and is very broad, including service providers, legal organizations, racial justice groups and civic and religious organizations. Our full-time campaign organizers are enlisting the active support of communities most impacted by the human carnage perpetrated by Rikers. All that is required is the political will to do the right thing, and the #CLOSErikers campaign, spearheaded by JustLeadershipUSA and the Katal Center for Health, Equity and Justice, is determined to push the issue to the very top of the city’s policy agenda.

Virtually no one disputes the fact that the conditions of confinement at Rikers are horrendous, but some express doubts that shuttering it once and for all is necessary and harbor the false belief that the facility can be reformed. To them we say that the problem with Rikers is Rikers. It cannot be reformed. Neil Barsky, the founder of the Marshall Project, put it best: “The reality is that the only way to transform Rikers is to destroy it; it needs to be permanently closed. The buildings are crumbling. The guard culture of prisoner abuse and the gang culture of violence are ingrained. The complex is New York’s Guantanamo Bay; a secluded island, beyond the gaze of watchdogs, where the Constitution is no guide. It is a place that has outlived its usefulness.”

So while campaign member organizations work day after day for specific reforms, such as Raise the Age, solitary confinement reform and the recent decision to move all adolescents off the island, we are unanimous in our belief that ultimately, closure is the only solution.

Others express doubts about the feasibility of finding alternative places to detain Rikers residents. To them we say that, first, the number of people kept in pretrial detention can be reduced dramatically. For one thing, as the crime rate continues to drop, fewer and fewer people are being charged with felonies. At its peak in 1992, the daily average was more than 21,000 people. Today, it is down to less than half that number, and the trend points to a continuing decline. But there are also affirmative steps the city can and should take to further reduce the number of people held before trial. Because of the scarcity of mental health and drug treatment services for poor people, Rikers Island has become a dumping ground for people who shouldn’t be there. It has been estimated that 41 percent percent of the current Rikers population suffers from mental illness, and the jail is notoriously ill-equipped to deal with their problems. So bringing those services to scale in the community would enable the city to transfer these very vulnerable people to more appropriate and humane settings. 

Second, the city must tackle the related issues of bail reform and court delay. It must be remembered that 81 percent of the people at Rikers Island have not been convicted of anything (the remaining 19 percent are serving sentences of less than 6 months for misdemeanors). Most are there awaiting trial, which today can take an average of 200 days – an unconscionable amount of time filled with constant court adjournments and delays. In many of these cases, bail has been set, but the defendants and their families are too poor to raise the funds. This amounts to jailing someone for the “crime” of poverty. Court delays and unaffordable bail violate the letter and spirit of the constitutional rights to a speedy trial, reasonable bail and the assumption that you are innocent until proven guilty. Because we do not support closing Rikers without first shrinking the population considerably, meaningful bail reform and ending unnecessary court delays are high priorities for the #CLOSErikers campaign.

For me, closing Rikers Island is not the end of the story. For generations, people of color from New York City’s most impoverished neighborhoods have borne the brunt of Rikers Island’s brutality and neglect. Hundreds of thousands of us have been removed from our homes and communities for long periods of time before being convicted of any crime, causing injury not only to ourselves, but to our families, including our children. Damage has been done; injuries have been sustained. It is time for the city to accept its responsibility and to provide the resources necessary for healing to begin. Closing Rikers is only the first step in building the healthy communities all New Yorkers deserve.

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