Island is closing. Although it will not happen overnight and will
likely take years to accomplish, the behemoth complex of jails known
for its brutality, torture and other human rights abuses will be shut
down. Over the years, Rikers has earned the reputation as America’s
most notorious prison.
a March 31 press conference with New York City Council Speaker
Melissa Mark-Viverito, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the 10-year
plan to close Rikers.
York City has always been better than Rikers Island. I am proud to
chart a course for our city that lives up to this reality,” de
Blasio said. “Our success in reducing crime and reforming our
criminal justice system has paved a path off Rikers Island and toward
community-based facilities capable of meeting our criminal justice
that Rikers Island is part of a national problem, the mayor said
that, while the mass-incarceration problem did not begin in New York,
it will end there. Since the facility opened in 1932, this marks the
first time the city has made closing Rikers its official policy.
de Blasio tweeted about the significance of this decision:
down Rikers Island is different than shutting down any other jail.
It's closing the ultimate example of mass incarceration.
the jail has been around for 85 years, Rikers Island has an older
history fittingly steeped in the enslavement of Black people. As Vice
reported, the Rikers (the Anglicized version of Rycken) were a
wealthy Dutch family that settled the island in the 1660s at a time
when New York was still known as New Amsterdam. From 1815 to 1838,
the family patriarch, Richard Riker, oversaw the city’s
criminal court. Part of his responsibilities included deeming free
Black children, women and men as “fugitive slaves,”
allowing for their kidnapping to the South by bounty hunters without
a trial. Riker received kickbacks from slave catchers, and he and two
slave-catching police officers were known as the “Kidnapping
Club” by abolitionists.
this sordid history of Rikers Island has continued to plague the
facility, which is the second-largest in America after Los Angeles
County Jail. The conglomeration of 10 jails sitting on the 400-acre
island houses mostly men (93 percent), but also women and juveniles.
Throughout a given year, 77,000 people go through Rikers, with 10,000
inmates detained on a given day. In the 1980s and 1990s, the jail
population was double current numbers. The prison population is 89
percent Black and Latino (56 percent African-American and 33 percent
Latino) — from New York’s low-income communities —
and only 7.5 percent white.
percent of Rikers inmates have not been convicted of a crime and are
pretrial detainees, with the rest serving short sentences of a year
or less, as
New York Times
Around 40 percent of detainees have a mental illness, according to
the Urban Institute.
decision to close Rikers comes in the midst of longstanding problems
of violence, brutality and inhumane living conditions for those
detained there. For example,
died in custody. Rikers continues to place inmates in
an internationally condemned form of physical and psychological
torture, with Black and Latino inmates subjected to the punishment at
a much higher rate than whites.
to a report from the federal monitor overseeing Rikers since 2015,
the abuse continues, with guards using excessive force at an
“alarming rate.” For example, it is common for correction
officers to place inmates in chokeholds, punch them in the head while
handcuffed, slam them into walls and douse them with pepper spray.
The jails also are an environmental disaster, with regular flooding,
crumbling infrastructure with dilapidated facilities, a putrid
landfill and pollution-belching power plant, and overheated
conditions that have given Rikers the nickname
Grist reported. With no central air conditioning in the summer
months, some prisoners have suffered from cardiovascular conditions,
heat stroke, rashes and asthma, and some have attempted suicide. One
homeless veteran was
his hot cell that overheated to at least 100 degrees from faulty
came to a head with the story of
who was arrested and sent to Rikers at age 16 for allegedly stealing
a backpack. He was never charged. While there, in a story revealed by
The New Yorker,
endured three years of torture
Rikers, including beatings by guards from his first day behind bars,
and starvation. After his release, Browder committed suicide in June
2015 at age 22, using an air conditioning cord to hang himself. This
was a consequence of depression from the abuse he had suffered. The
Marshall Project interviewed his mother, Venida Browder, for a video
series called We Are Witnesses.
York City Public Advocate Letitia James wants to rename the island
after Browder, given the planned shuttering of the infamous jail.
de Blasio has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to improving
conditions at Rikers, the time has come to phase out America’s
most notorious jail. A
by the Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice and
Incarceration Reform maps out a plan to shut down the jail.
Condemning the facility as a “19th-century
solution to a 21st-century
problem,” the commission calls for reducing the jail population
by half to 5,000 and placing the remaining inmates in new facilities
around the city.
report makes a number of other recommendations, including reforming
arrests by diverting tens of thousands of low-level offenders from
traditional prosecution and reducing the number of people in pretrial
detention so that people do not have to wait months or years in jail
for the resolution of their cases.
we recommend an approach to punishment that prioritizes meaningful
sentences and a judicious use of incarceration for all types of
cases,” the report said.
Island has been used as a torture chamber for Black people for far
too long. Its end will come, though not soon enough.
This commentary was originally published by AtlantaBlackStar