If you randomly drew from a hat the name of a New York City legislator or public official, at any level of government, and asked them whether the city should keep the Rikers Island jail complex open, odds are good that they’d say no. Same is true if you grabbed any random New Yorker off the street, provided they even really know about our perennially troubled offshore gulag.

The island complex, now edging up to a century operating as a jail, has been plagued by more or less the same problems for decades, a fact highlighted by former detainees-turned-advocates testifying in exasperation at the lack of progress during City Council hearings and hearings in the long-running Nuñez v. Department of Correction lawsuit, which led to the federal settlement that still governs the complex.

These can be summarized in a few general buckets:

  • Violence, the main and most abhorrent issue, perpetrated both by corrections officers and detainees against either group, often without consequence or proper accountability for the former.
  • Health, in the sense that detainees often are not offered and do not receive proper physical and mental health interventions, leading to the exacerbation of chronic conditions and horrors like suicides, as well as as the aforementioned violence.
  • Physical infrastructure, given that the Rikers facilities themselves are often old, poorly maintained, and to some extent falling apart, which only worsens the other issues as parts of the buildings themselves become weapons or health hazards.
  • Access, with the isolated island having only one real access point, and its remoteness making it difficult and time-consuming for attorneys, friends, and family to reach it.
  • Management, the issue that to some extent undergirds all the others, with a top echelon that seems largely resistant to oversight — see, for example, the DOC’s move to cut the overseeing Board of Correction off from real-time access to security footage — and an indifferent rank and file that is poorly deployed and until relatively recently had a blank check to take unjustified and unlimited leave.

The longstanding and stubborn nature of these issues have led many to determine that the only feasible path forward is to shut the complex down. Obviously, this wouldn’t be an ultimate solution, and the issues of management’s failures to address violence and detainee health could persist no matter where the detainees are located. However, it would pretty directly help address the issues of physical infrastructure and access, and the thinking also goes that having borough-based jails in NYC neighborhoods would put them under the more direct purview of local legislators and generally combat the out of sight, out of mind maxim.

This sentiment led then-Mayor Bill de Blasio, under intense public pressure, to commit to the closure of the complex in March 2017, culminating some two and a half years later in an October 2019 agreement and law to move detainees to four borough-based jails (controversially excluding Staten Island) and shut down Rikers by 2026. There were a good share of skeptics at the time, and it turns out they had a point. The agreement coming just a few months before the Covid-19 pandemic upended society was inopportune, and by October 2020, the city was already projecting at least a one-year delay in the opening of the replacement jails.

A half-finished jail might be the best alternative

Things haven’t been looking great since. Procurement documents posted by the city just this week suggest that it doesn’t expect the construction of the Brooklyn facility, the first in the flagship plan, to be completed until 2029, two years after the legal deadline not only for constructing it but for having moved all detainees to all four jails. Even if the structures were to somehow be completed by then, they would have a collective capacity of around 3,300 people, which means that the plan as a whole depends on the jail population falling to or below that level. But as of this week, there has been talk of housing inmates in the half-finished jail.  As DOC Commissioner Louis Molina told the City Council in December, the population is trending in the exact opposite direction, with the department’s internal forecasts estimating cracking 7,000 again by 2024.

Of course, the number of people in Rikers at any given time isn’t like a tide that rises or falls without our input. Our leaders are making active choices all the time that can grow or shrink the Rikers population. Bail reform allows more people to avoid pre-trial detention. Reversing these reforms does the opposite. A greater focus on low-level arrests balloons the jail population, while growing alternatives to incarceration somewhat counteracts this effect, and so on. It’s not a simple system, with straightforward inputs and outputs that can be just turned like knobs, but it is a system that is responsive to our collective priorities and decisions.

Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, Photo: @nycspeakeradams

Inhumane, but stuck

In her State of the City speech last week, Council Speaker Adrienne Adams called Rikers “inhumane” and recommitted to its closure, saying it was “no longer serving our city.” Her backing is significant, but it is another in the chorus of leadership voices that have expressed support for shutting the complex down. None of that means much unless we’re able to actually move forward with the multiple logistical steps necessary to get there, and things aren’t looking great. If you haven’t been incarcerated in Rikers and you don’t know anyone who has, the whole thing might seem like a bit of an abstraction; it’s a bad place, sure, but aren’t jails supposed to be?

This miscalculates just how badly things have gotten. As I’ve written here before, federal monitor Steve Martin, appointed as part of the above-mentioned Nuñez settlement, has seen criminal justice systems all over the country in all sorts of capacities, from inside and outside, and he seems almost at a loss in his periodic reports to fully convey the extent of the violence and dysfunction. Some strides have been made lately, enough so that District Judge Laura Taylor Swain has refused requests to appoint a federal receiver to fully take control of the system, but the situation is more manageable than it is fixable without attacking the root of the problem, part of which is Rikers Island and its culture itself. The only way this happens any faster is with broad public pressure, the very thing that caused elected officials to commit to closure in the first place. 

Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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