Each week we hear a new story about someone who has died in New York City’s sprawling jail on Rikers Island. My heart breaks when I think about the number of innocent people waiting for their time in court. I am enraged thinking about the scores of people who have committed petty crimes who are left for months or even years while waiting for due process. Even those who have committed serious crimes should still be treated with dignity while awaiting sentencing.
Mayor de Blasio was elected in 2013 and promised to end the “tale of two cities” in New York. Part of that declaration was to decrease the number of Black and Latinx individuals who have been targeted by police solely based on the color of their skin and the neighborhoods in which they reside. Sadly, over the course of the mayor’s tenure, we have not seen substantive change in many of those communities.
Initially, the mayor supported an idea of community jails, that is, instead of warehousing thousands of individuals on Rikers Island, those awaiting sentencing would be able to stay in local jails in their own neighborhoods where they’d have access to their families and a sense of dignity. This plan stalled and we are now witnessing the deterioration of a facility and an overall disregard for human life while jailed.
Part of the obstacle in implementing community jail programs throughout the city stems from the age-old NIMBY problem, that is, “not in my back yard.” Many New Yorkers initially supported the dissolution of Rikers and the building of smaller jails until the proposal included their own neighborhoods.
We must ask ourselves why so many people are housed in Rikers in the first place. Is jumping a turnstile or some other petty offense a punishable crime whereby someone needs to sit in jail for days, weeks, months, or even years because they cannot afford bail? In essence, we have created a system where our most economically vulnerable populations are filling the jails in a system that clearly does not work.
It is my sincere hope that Democratic nominee and presumed mayor-elect Eric Adams will make Rikers a priority once his tenure begins. As a former police officer who has spoken quite eloquently about disparities in racial profiling and arrests, Adams must move quickly to solve this crisis. To date, 12 people have died in Rikers this year alone.
We must also pressure our city council members to assist the incoming mayor with solutions to jails in New York City. What we have now is a 21st century version of a “debtors prison” and as my grandmother used to say, “If we can put a man on the moon, we can surely figure this out!” It is high time we do so, far too many lives are at risk.
Christina Greer, Ph.D., is an Associate professor at Fordham University, the author of “Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream,” the co-host of the podcast FAQ-NYC.