This week Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that although it might take 10 years, the notorious Rikers Island jail is scheduled for closure. The announcement comes in the wake of public outrage over horror stories often times recounted and reported by inmates and correction officers alike. The city was scrutinized over conditions at the facility after the 2015 death of Kalief Browder, who was arrested at the age of 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack and spent three years at Rikers Island without a trial. Two years after his release, Browder committed suicide at age 22. Browder’s case has recently sparked interest in part because of the six-part documentary “TIME: The Kalief Browder Story” on SpikeTV, which premiered Wednesday night.
As the TV documentary about Browder exposes the gritty reality of life on the island, the spotlight has highlighted many of the institutionalized practices that have gone on at Rikers.
By 2027, Rikers Island will be a painful part of New York City’s history, with smaller jails across the city and an even lower number of inmates in the city’s criminal justice system.
While some questioned why it will take so long to close the jail, that very goal was outlined by Mayor de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito Friday, when the two announced plans to close Rikers Island ahead of a report on the controversial Queens facility released Sunday. The announcement comes as a federal monitor releases another report Monday about the use of excessive force at Rikers by corrections officers. The report details that guards continue to engage in violent behavior, including striking handcuffed inmates in the head, putting inmates in chokeholds, unnecessarily using pepper spray and slamming inmates against walls.
“There is no doubt that the road to Rikers Island’s closure will be long and arduous,” de Blasio said during Friday’s news conference at City Hall. “It will require that local officials and stakeholders stand up and support facilities that meet our moral obligation to thousands of New Yorkers whose lives we will never turn our backs on. It will require that our state government, and each component of our criminal justice system, contribute to the reform efforts critical to reducing our jail population and improving re-entry services and educational programming.”
Mark-Viverito added that the community would be involved in where inmates would go.
“Obviously, it is a long-term plan,” she said. “I will not be the speaker at the time that these serious decisions would have to be made. But yes, the conversation could begin. We obviously want to engage in a conversation with our colleagues once the report is issued and start getting feedback from members with regards to that.”
The Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform released a 148-page report Sunday about conditions at Rikers Island and that suggested remedies.
The commission’s report outlined a plan to reduce the jail population to half of its current size, as well as a plan for developing a smaller, borough-based jail system. The new system would consist of facilities in each of the five boroughs located near courthouses and public transportation, which would improve outcomes for inmates and reduce the burden on families and the Department of Corrections.
“This is a bold, progressive plan that will ultimately improve the lives of inmates and staff alike, making us all safer while also saving taxpayer dollars,” CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance Executive Director Michael Jacobson said, “Implementing these recommendations will require significant political will. It will be hard work, but work that is worth doing—work we are obligated to do to ensure a justice system that embodies dignity, equality and fairness for all.”
Getting Rikers on the path to closure has been a long campaign for the many city activists who have done as Che Guevara directed: “Let’s be realistic. Let’s do the impossible.”
The #CLOSErikers campaign stayed the course in an effort to “highlight the persistent dysfunction on Rikers, a penal colony defined by its resistance to reform.” This week they noted, “For decades, Rikers Island has been marked by violence and corruption. Stories regularly emerge documenting the abuse, brutality and death in the institution. The #CLOSErikers campaign was formed in 2016 to break political gridlock and achieve solutions guided by directly impacted communities. Led by JustLeadershipUSA, in partnership with the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice, the #CLOSErikers campaign includes community groups, researchers, business leaders, faith and human rights leaders, criminal justice experts, health and housing service providers, advocacy and legal groups, and more. Through the campaign, more than 135 organizations across New York City have joined the call to close Rikers Island. We are proud to now count Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform among those who support that call. By closing Rikers, New York City can focus on healing and rebuilding the communities where Rikers has brought suffering. The campaign to #CLOSErikers is calling for New Yorkers to boldly reimagine the city’s failed criminal justice system and become a national leader in ending mass incarceration.”
Brooklyn Council Member Jumaane Williams said in a statement that although he applauds the Rikers closure, he believes the criminal justice system should be fixed entirely.
“Now that there’s been a commitment to close the detention center, we must think of a responsible way to shut down Rikers Island,” he said. “While it could mean new facilities, it doesn’t necessitate it. A combination of pre-trial tools and policies and existing penitentiaries could suffice. Not to mention the ongoing positive shift to investing in a preventative paradigm.”
Rikers Island opened in 1932 and currently houses 10,000 inmates, with 80 percent awaiting trial. De Blasio said that he plans to cut the inmate population to 5,000. Reports indicate that nearby LaGuardia Airport could be expanded once Rikers is closed, adding another runway and terminal.
The correction facility has come under fire recently for alleged abuse by corrections officers, long wait times for trials and other deplorable conditions. Just last week, a former Rikers correction officer, an inmate and the inmate’s wife were indicted on charges they brought marijuana, alcohol and tobacco into the jail. James Brown, 45, of Queens, who became a correction officer in January 2016, was arraigned on charges that include third-degree bribe receiving and official misconduct. Between Nov. 2, 2016, and Dec. 9, 2016, Brown allegedly accepted $700 from an inmate’s wife to bring in the contraband to her husband, who is being held on a Queens attempted murder charge.
Glenn E. Martin, president and Founder of JustLeadershipUSA and member of the commission, started the #CLOSErikers campaign in 2016 and said the report speaks to what many who work in the criminal justice system have been saying for years.
“The report from the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform provides the evidence and comprehensive roadmap for doing what our #CLOSErikers campaign has been advocating over the past year: shuttering the notorious penal colony,” he said. “The findings from this latest report reinforce the urgency to close Rikers, but also remind us that he have to be equally vigilant in ensuring that the abusive culture of Rikers does not infiltrate our vision for smaller, more humane, community-based jails. The evaluation of data from Aug. 1 through Dec. 31, 2016, reveals that abuse by staff toward detainees held at Rikers is getting worse, not better. Despite the federal court order requiring New York City to address brutality by staff, use of force rates have escalated, staff are colluding in their reports about use of force, and consequences for staff who engage in such activities are virtually non-existent. The culture of violence at Rikers is particularly egregious when compared to other jails across country, which is one of countless reasons Rikers is beyond reform. Now that New York City will be moving toward closure, we must make certain that protecting our most vulnerable and holding officers accountable is part of our new vision for justice in New York City.”
Gabriel Sayegh, co-founder and co-executive director of the Katal Center for Health, Equity and Justice said, “The new report from the federal monitor is proof that closing Rikers is not only the right thing to do, but the only thing to do, to truly reform New York City’s criminal justice system. When even a federal court order is ineffective at reducing abuse by Rikers staff, it is clear that the problem with Rikers is Rikers itself. Not only has the city failed at reducing use of force incidents since the implementation of the settlement, abuses have actually increased. Further, staff are not being disciplined for their misconduct, either the abuse itself or their activities to cover it up. The recent announcement that New York City will close Rikers is an opportunity to reimagine a new system of justice where people are treated fairly and humanely.”
In response to the report and the mayor’s plan the Correction Officers Benevolent Association blasted the city in a news conference Tuesday. The union said that the majority off correction officers are doing the right thing. COBA has long asked for more help from the city, claiming that the issue are the inmates who are violent with officers at Rikers.
“Reforming Rikers Island has become a trendy talking point for celebrity activists making documentaries and progressive politicians seeking re-election,” Elias Husamudeen, president of the COBA said Tuesday. “This report has only served as yet another convenient avenue for the mayor and the other politicians to kick the can down the road.”