“Rikers Island has come to represent our worst tendencies and our biggest failures,” said New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito during her State of the City speech last month. “It is where Kalief [Browder] suffered and his spirit broke down. For too long, Rikers has not stood for more justice, but for revenge. We must explore how we can get the population on Rikers to be so small that the dream of shutting it down becomes a reality.”
Viverito’s words to the crowd that gathered at Samuel Gompers High School in the Bronx has pushed forward the notion that the infamous East River island could be in its last days as a home for the undesirable. The Council speaker said she’d call on former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman to lead a commission on criminal justice reform with the goal of potentially shutting down Rikers.
Now, the words “Rikers Island” are on the tongues of many locally elected officials and activists.
The most recent cover story for Crain’s New York Business imagines Rikers as a multi-use facility that would house a tree nursery, a convention center, schools and more. But not all politicians have boarded the “shut down Rikers” train, most notably New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
When asked to clarify, a City Hall spokesperson sent a statement pointing out how much needed to be done before any thoughts of closing Rikers can be entertained.
“The mayor believes closing Rikers is a noble goal, but the mayor also made clear many significant challenges must be addressed before that can be achieved,” the statement said. “A yearlong commission is underway to study these issues, and the mayor’s office will have a representative on the commission to work collaboratively on these issues. For years, an environment of violence, abuse and neglect has been tolerated at Rikers. We are not tolerating the status quo any longer. The situation is unacceptable and must change now, not another decade from now. We are putting into place serious reforms, which are reducing violence in targeted areas and keeping the population down. We are fixing the problems now because we can’t afford to wait.”
New York Councilman Jumaane Williams agrees. He believes that shutting down Rikers is a worthy goal but wants the commission studying the possibility to come back with their findings before he goes all in. He’s also struggling with talking heads jumping to negative conclusions.
“I think everybody should agree that if we can shut down Rikers Island without jeopardizing anyone’s safety, I think everybody should be on board with that,” Williams said to the AmNews. “Assuming that, I think we should wait for the study to come out.”
Rikers Island has an average daily population between 10,000 and 11,000 prisoners, which makes any consideration of decommissioning the jail difficult. Speaking at a Nov. 18 event at the New School last year, former New York City Correction Commissioner Martin Horn presented his own solution to reducing Rikers’ population by more than 90 percent. His ideas included bail reform, properly serving mentally ill and adolescent prisoners and making the correction system more humane overall.
When asked where the city would put the inmates if there were no Rikers, Williams’ remarks fell in line with some of Horn’s suggestions. He reminded the AmNews that there is a significant number of people on the island who are still awaiting trial. “We can have them wear bracelets or other devices to gauge where they are,” he said. “We can speed up the process [of going to trial]. I think people have a tendency to think ‘tough on crime’ only means as much law enforcement as possible … that it only means lock ‘em up and throw away the key, especially when it comes to Blacks and Latinos.”
Although the study’s only in the beginning stages, the voices clamoring for the closing of Rikers Island have gotten louder. From state officials to local officials to publications such as Crain’s and some of the daily newspapers, many have gotten on board for multiple reasons.
Last week, the National Action Network hosted a town hall meeting in Harlem that discussed a potential shutdown of Rikers Island. The Rev. Al Sharpton, who led the meeting, stated that he was against moving inmates into smaller facilities around the city and remarked, “If you can’t correct the condition in Rikers, how are you going to correct them elsewhere?”
When asked if he would rather reform Rikers than shut it down, Sharpton’s spokesperson sent a statement to the AmNews.
“As the town hall we hosted last week clearly demonstrated, there are serious problems on all sides of the issues at Rikers Island—and things that need to be addressed right now,” said Sharpton’s statement. “I’m looking forward to working with stakeholders in government, inmate advocates and the officers who serve in the city’s jails to fix the immediate problems we face. I am taking a hard look at all possibilities and look forward to continuing that discussion.”
Other elected officials, when contacted by the AmNews, referred to previous statements they’ve made or passed the buck.
When contacted by the AmNews, a spokesperson for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed the paper to statements the governor made during a question and answer session Feb. 16.
“It was built back in the 1930s, and it is way over capacity for what it was intended to do,” Cuomo said during the Q&A. “It’s a dangerous place. It’s dangerous for guards, for correction officials and for the prisoners. The federal government came in on a civil rights investigation. So it’s really a bad situation. Part of the problem, I believe, is that it’s not designed to do that. It’s too big, and it’s too old. And they now have technology that is available to build a jail that makes it much safer for everyone. We shouldn’t shy away from a problem because it’s too big.”
Cuomo continued, “Now, it’s on Rikers Island. But by the way, you drive right through a neighborhood in Queens when you go to Rikers Island. It’s not like an island in the middle of the ocean. You could throw a baseball and hit it. I think we could find an alternative site, and we could build a better facility. Step one is you have to decide to do it. And we are doing all sorts of big things.”
Cuomo acknowledged that the city’s currently dealing with the rebuilding of LaGuardia Airport, Penn Station and the Farley Post Office, so “fixing” Rikers Island isn’t completely out of the question.
At NAN’s town hall last week, Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark discussed her jurisdiction over the jail and said that even if Rikers Island were to close today, “it’s going to take years to build a new facility.” She added, “So we have to deal with the issues at Rikers as it exists right now.”
When asked for a comment on the facility’s future, Clark’s spokesperson directed the AmNews to the Department of Corrections or the mayor’s office because “they decide these matters.”
Glenn E. Martin, of the organization JustLeadershipUSA, spoke at a New School talk last November as well. He spoke of his experience at Rikers Island and how his organization has been working to reduce the country’s overall correctional population for a while now.
“People held on Rikers—the majority without being convicted of a crime, simply because they can’t afford bail—must survive barbaric conditions,” said Martin during the talk. “Many don’t survive on the island. There were 10 deaths last year alone, and stabbings and slashings have doubled since 2010. Other people don’t survive the trauma of Rikers once they’re off the island. And the scars of Rikers, both physical and emotional, remain for the rest of their lives.”
Martin continued, “Those who’ve borne the brunt of the suffering caused by Rikers were forcefully articulating the urgency of closure long before criminal justice reform enjoyed its ‘national moment.’ Exposing Rikers’s grisly record was made entirely possible by the courage of those who’ve suffered within its walls—people such as Kalief Browder.”