Why a vote to close New York’s Rikers Island is being met with backlash

Activists hold a rally calling for the closure of Rikers Island on October 17, 2019. | Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

City leaders say they want to create smaller, more “humane” jails in the city. Some activists argue that there shouldn’t be jails at all.

For the better part of eight decades, Rikers Island Jail has been a glaring symbol of the most negative aspects of New York City’s justice system.

Now, the sprawling complex is potentially on its way to being closed — but there are plenty of questions and concerns about what will replace it.

On October 17, the New York City Council voted to support a $8 billion plan to replace Rikers with four smaller jails located in all but one of the city’s five boroughs. Under the plan, the new facilities would be located in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan and would house just over 3,000 people — a drastic reduction from the roughly 10,000 that were incarcerated in Rikers at the beginning of this decade.

The plan, following Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2017 announcement of Rikers’ closure, has been touted by some city officials as part of a larger effort to drastically change its justice system. In recent years, as national attention has shifted toward criminal justice reform and the negative effects of mass incarceration on predominantly black and brown communities, local politicians and city officials have proposed or enacted a series of reforms, including eliminating much of the city’s cash bail system and spending $265 million to support alternatives to incarceration, according to the New York Times.

“This is about valuing our people, no longer condemning people and sending them on a pathway that only made their lives worse and worse,” de Blasio, who has called for a “smaller, safer, and fairer” system, said on Thursday shortly after the council’s vote. “Today we made history: The era of mass incarceration is over.”

Still, the proposal has attracted fierce criticism from opponents of the plan, with some arguing that the closure of Rikers isn’t feasible. Other opponents have criticized the proposal for a different reason, saying that if New York City truly wants to change its justice system, it needs to do more than close Rikers and create smaller jails across the city: It needs to close the city’s jails entirely.

Current plans to close Rikers by the end of 2026 are far from settled and will require additional input from local politicians, developers, and jail officials. But in many ways, the disagreement over the future of incarceration in the city reflects a larger disagreement over incarceration in America and what, if anything, it should look like.

The Rikers Island Jail Complex has been at the center of several controversies

The first jail facility on Rikers Island Jail was opened in the 1930s on an island named after Richard Rikers, a man involved in the fugitive slave trade during the first half of the 19th century. When it was first opened, supporters of the jail argued that Rikers would be “the most perfect prison in the world” and would serve as a model for a more humane incarceration system in the US.

That isn’t what happened.

Instead, the jail grew considerably over subsequent decades, eventually becoming the jail complex that has been so heavily criticized in recent years. Numerous reports have noted the poor condition of parts of the facility and the harsh treatment of those detained there. From the Washington Post:

Even from the beginning, however, it suffered from severe problems: persistent rat infestations, spontaneous fires and an unassailable stench, CityLab reported, as prisoners were forced to pick through garbage later used as landfill to expand the island’s size. It only grew from there, expanding to include 10 jails, a solitary-confinement complex, a power plant and more than a dozen beds next to the women’s dorm, for babies who were born there, according to the Marshall Project.

The jail complex has also become known as a place where people are detained for years before trial — often longer than their actual sentences. The stories of people incarcerated for long periods at Rikers have been especially concerning.

Of these individuals, perhaps the most high-profile example is Kalief Browder, a young black man who was detained at Rikers in 2010 after being arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. Browder spent three years in Rikers, much of it in solitary confinement, and was the subject of a widely read 2014 article in the New Yorker. Browder was released after his case was dismissed in 2013 but he died by suicide two years later, fueling calls for reform to the city’s jail system.

Other deaths and violent incidents in the jail complex have also drawn increased criticism to the facility, like a 2008 case where a corrections officer was indicted for directing a group of teenage inmates to attack others in the facility. Or the June 2019 death of Layleen Polanco, a trans woman who was in solitary confinement.

In 2014, an investigation from then-US Attorney Preet Bharara found that there had been several civil rights violations at the facility and that the climate of Rikers had supported a “deep-seated culture of violence” against teenage inmates detained there.

“For adolescent inmates, Rikers Island is broken,” Bharara said when announcing the findings. “It is a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort, a place where verbal insults are repaid with physical injuries, where beatings are routine while accountability is rare.”

Three years later, as activists intensified their calls to close the jail complex and an independent commission released a report supporting it, de Blasio announced that he wanted to close Rikers and replace it with the smaller facilities. “New York City will close the Rikers Island jail facility,” de Blasio has said previously. “It will take many years. It will take many tough decisions along the way. But it will happen.”

The city is touting a shift toward a more “humane” system. But some critics argue that jails aren’t needed at all.

The October council vote marks a step toward de Blasio’s goal, but it hasn’t happened without backlash. The four proposed jails, which would each house close to 900 people in tall, multi-level buildings, have been criticized, especially by those in the neighborhoods where they will be constructed. As Curbed noted earlier this year, “Every community board with a jail slated for its district … rejected the plans, citing a slew of concerns including with the proposed locations, the overall review process, and what they see as a lack of community engagement.”

Other critics argue that, despite falling crime rates in New York, the drastic reduction in the number of people detained in the city’s new jails will lead to more crime.

This argument focuses on how the city has discussed reducing the size of the city’s jail population. In 2010, the New York City jail system had a population of roughly 10,000. In recent years, that population has fallen to below 7,500, a drop that city officials attribute to lower crime rates and reforms that reduced the number of offenses that will lead to someone being put in jail. “In August 2019, the jail population fell below 7,000 for the first time since 1980,” city officials noted in a report this year. “Based on changes in the bail law and investments in citywide pretrial and sentencing diversion as well as reentry services, the City now projects an even lower jail population: 3,300 by 2026.”

Because of this, city officials recently announced that while they initially intended to create a system that could support 5,000 inmates, the new jails will actually house fewer people than that in an effort to match the 3,300 projection included in the report. City leaders argue that a number of new laws, including ending mandatory minimums for low-level drug offenders, the elimination of cash bail for most misdemeanor and non-violent offenses, and the expansion of diversion programs will limit the need to detain more people in the proposed jails.

But the further reduction of the proposed jail population has led to criticism. “The new 3,300 target will likely require a significant realignment of expectations about public safety,” argues Seth Barron, a project director at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.

“Smaller jails may mean fewer inmates — but not fewer criminals,” he adds, arguing that the new system may not be prepared to handle a rise in crime if it were to occur.

But perhaps the most forceful criticism of the jails plan has been made by activists involved with the growing prison abolition movement, who argue that the money being spent on the new jails would be better used on community programs that allow people to avoid incarceration in the first place. Members of one coalition, known as No New Jails NYC, protested at the October 17 city council meeting arguing that the new facilities were not a solution to the problem of mass incarceration and that the plan to close Rikers didn’t mean much if new jails would take its place.

Some members of the city council argued that the process was moving too quickly and seemed to be incomplete. “I come from a world of trips to Rikers, of going up north to visit family members,” said councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuel, a Democrat representing Brooklyn, according to CNN. “We as a body, for a plan of this magnitude, addressing a system of racism and mass-incarceration — this process has been inappropriately rushed.”

Thursday’s vote, she added, “did not address the circumstances that lead [people] to Rikers Island.”

The case against the new jails plan was also made earlier this week in the Appeal, a criminal justice news outlet. “Instead of fast-tracking skyscraper jails, the city should be investing in communities and divesting from the carceral system,” Jonathan Ben-Menachem wrote. He added that it was puzzling that officials voted to create the new jails before formally voting to close the jail complex, noting that because of the separate processes, “the city could move ahead with new jail construction without a commitment to closing Rikers.”

As the jails proposal moves forward, there are still multiple things that could happen to derail de Blasio’s plan. The current mayor will leave office in 2021, years before the anticipated closure of Rikers in 2026. It’s possible that a new mayor will change the timeline of the closure or reverse course entirely.

Those familiar with the state’s jail system argue that the issue is about much more than where people are incarcerated. “It’s glib to say that if you don’t [change the culture], you’ll create little Rikers around the city,” Michael Jacobson, the former commissioner of the city’s corrections department, told the Marshall Project earlier this year. “But, in the end, it’s true.”