The Closure of Rikers Island

John Moore / Getty Images

by SOPHIA CARLSON


Rikers Island is a 400 acre stretch of land in the East River used as a jail complex for New York City. This facility is notorious for egregious practices of neglect and abuse towards the individuals held there, and on October 17 of this year, the New York City Council voted in favor of a plan to close the jail by 2026. Despite the vote being a victory in prison and judicial reform, the plan itself is seen by many as troubling and problematic. We know that the problems in Rikers are not exclusive to Rikers. Its closure could be an opportunity to make an example of forward–thinking policy changes surrounding policing and incarceration. But is it?

It’s important to develop an understanding of the history of Rikers before delving into the controversy surrounding its closure, because the plan voted in by City Council fails to address the actual problems within Rikers, despite decades of public access to well-circulated evidence of the complex’s negligence. The implications of their failure to recognize the political and cultural drivers leading to the closure of Rikers is that problems are not being solved. Rather, they’re being covered up. 

In 1884 the island was sold to New York City by the Riker family, Dutch immigrants whose patriarch Richard Riker presided over the Court of Special Sessions in the city. In his novel Gateway to Freedom, author Eric Foner details how Riker was a member of the Kidnapping Club, where members would, for entertainment, bring a black individual before Riker, who would issue certificates of removal that would send legally free black people to the south. The entire act was illegal, but as we know, policing and judicial practices in the United States have long been racially discriminatory against people of color

Used for decades as a garbage dump, it wasn’t until the 1930s that Rikers Island, located between Queens and the Bronx, began being used for what we know it as today: a massive prison complex that currently holds 5,000 individuals, 70% of whom are awaiting trial, which means that they are still presumed innocent under the law and have yet to be convicted or sentenced. 

But don’t let that definition fool you- “awaiting trial” for many people at Rikers doesn’t always mean weeks or even months. Individuals who were either denied or cannot afford their bail or who refuse to take a plea can spend years awaiting trial for petty crimes. 

Kalief Browder, a 16 year-old New Yorker accused of stealing a backpack, spent three years at Rikers before his case was dismissed due to a lack of evidence. Browder’s case caused national headlines when a disturbing surveillance video emerged of the teenager being beaten by other inmates and guards at the facility. He survived the attack, but later took his own life after being released. 

Browder was a teenager held in a prison nicknamed “Torture Island” for three years for being accused of stealing a backpack. The kind of violence that Browder was subjected to was hardly out of the norm for Rikers. In fact, it is commonplace. People who have spent time in Rikers detail horrifying accounts of violence, both committed by other inmates as well as the guards and wardens themselves. There are numerous instances of individuals even dying as a direct result of violence in the jail. 

Violence from officers and other inmates is not the only environmental concern that individuals placed in Rikers have to worry about. Despite being nearly 100 years old, the jail has hardly been modernized. Incarcerated individuals at Rikers have died from heat stroke while in their cell, while in 2019 a trans woman named Layleen Polanco died of complications from epilepsy while placed in solitary confinement at the jail.

Polanco’s family believes that Rikers administrators failed to accommodate her medical condition despite its documentation. Aside from not accommodating Polanco’s epilepsy, her family believes that solitary confinement could have directly exacerbated the condition, let alone remove the opportunity for medical intervention and life saving measures should she experience life-threatening complications. 

Though prison reform advocates have called for the closure of the jail complex for decades, no steps were taken from a government standpoint until Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his intentions to close Rikers Island in 2017. His announcement garnered positive reception until he faced backlash for the perceived lack of any sort of concrete plan. 

More than two years went by until finally, on October 17 of this year, the New York City Council voted in favor of an $8 billion dollar plan to close Rikers in 2026 and replace it with four smaller and more “modern” jails. The jails would be located closer to the city’s main courthouses in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. 

MOCJ

Though many have hailed the closing of Rikers, perhaps even more have slammed it by criticizing the closure of Rikers happening in tandem with more prison openings. The plan was drawn in a way that largely ignores the other fundamental issues tied to Rikers Island that will likely continue unchecked. The culture of violence and deplorable conditions that people, many of whom have not even been sentenced, are subjected to when placed in Rikers Island will not simply end with its closure as it is reflective of the same kind of circumstances others are faced with in jails and prisons nationwide. 

Further, there are no elements of the plan that address how the disproportionate policing of people of color reinforces racially-based pressures and barriers on minority communities. The over policing of black and Hispanic communities and individuals has had devastating effects that will likely last for years to come, effects which the plan to close Rikers largely ignores. 

For people like Robert Gangi, a former NYC mayoral candidate and Director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, the plan voted in by City Council is not bound by logistical constraints. Rather, it could stand to be improved. 

“Our view is that the city could close Rikers without opening any new jails. The fundamental policy truth is that what your jail population is is not based on the crime rate. What it is based on is policy.”

Gangi’s point is derived from the belief that the United States is over-policing, and that the city doesn’t need to create additional spaces for incarcerated individuals to be held. Instead, they could revisit the policies which affect incarceration rates.

Gangi tied this issue to Rikers specifically, saying “there are several thousand people there who are sentenced…They’re all there for minor offenses because if you get sentenced to a year or more you go to state prison. So if you are an incarcerated person on Rikers island, you’re likely there for 30-60 days. The point is, what does that accomplish? You don’t need any of these people to be in jail.”

In many cities, the ebbs and flows in sentencing are linked to the policy choices for that city. Since taking office in 2018, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has famously rolled out sentencing and arrest guidelines that aim to drastically decrease arrest rates, specifically for non-violent crimes. 

In just one year the number of cases filed in Philadelphia fell by 18 percent, which is highly reflective of why the closing of Rikers does not necessarily induce a need for more local jails. Instead, NYC officials could take a page from Krasner’s playbook and review their policing and prosecutorial guidelines.

“Our view is that the city could close Rikers without opening any new jails”

Robert Gangi, former NYC mayoral candidate and Director of the Police Reform Organizing Project

Aside from the creation of new jail systems, Gangi highlighted another issue with the plan set out by City Council. 

In addition to being unlikely to be completed by 2026 or stay within the budget allocations, “virtually nobody who voted for the plan will be in power [at the projected time of completion].” He argues that the implications of this are that members with voting power in 2026 will not be bound to the current plan. Funding and logistical movements necessary to its completion could be dismissed altogether, lessening the likelihood of Rikers closing on time, if at all. 

Rikers reflects our broader inclination to look at individuals who are incarcerated as undeserving of human rights. People are fighting for their lives while they await trial for things as trivial as stealing a backpack. 

Kalief Browder should not have worried about survival while on Rikers Island. Kalief Browder should not have been on Rikers Island at all. 

As it stands, the plan to close Rikers Island is simply a Bandaid on a wound that the United States has been suffering from for hundreds of years. The racially discriminatory policing, judicial, and sentencing practices are worked so pervasively into our society and culture that the shutting of one island’s doors, especially with the opening of four new ones, does not solve the problem. In fact, it shows how out of touch our representatives are with the issues our judicial system perpetuates. 

Until our representatives begin to dig even an inch deeper into the deeply problematic policing and prison conditions within which our judicial system currently functions, they aren’t really closing the doors on Rikers. They’re holding them open. 


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