The closing of the Rikers Island Jail Complex is finally a reality. The decades of human rights violations and a socioeconomic burdens to NYC are coming to a close.
The culture of violence and abuse of correction officers towards adolescent male inmates was brought to light by a report from the United States Justice Department, published on August 4, 2014, which highlighted inmate-on-inmate violence, use of unnecessary excessive force by staff, failure to report violent incidents, and punitive segregation during 2011-2013 period. On January of 2015, the NYC Board of Correction voted unanimously to end solitary confinement for individuals under 21 years old and a significant reduction for adults.
In the midst of these changes, the suicide death of Kalief Browder, 22, in 2015, brought national attention and outrage, shocking the city and igniting the momentum for a complete shutdown of Rikers. Browder spent over three years at Rikers Island without a conviction. After bouts with depression due to solitary confinement and mental and physical abuse by correctional officers, Browder committed suicide at his mother’s home in the Bronx. He had been accused of robbing another teenager in 2010. His family was unable to pay the $3,000 bail, leading to a plea deal 33 months after being arraigned. The system had completely violated his rights; 400 days in solitary confinement and videos of correctional officers physically abusing him.
These were the mounting evidence — along with the Department of Justice report and calls for change — that led to the creation of a Close Rikers Campaign.
After a number of calls from community organizations and city politicians, NYC City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito called on retired Judge Jonathan Lippman to organize a commission in order to find a viable solution. The Lippman Independent Commission report similarly found a system plagued with violence and personal insecurity for both inmates and correctional officers. The report also found inadequate conditions for inmates and correctional officers, inefficient transportation systems, and the astonishing yearly cost to house an inmate at $247.000. Rather than keeping Rikers in operation, the Lippman Independent Commission recommended smaller borough-based jails, along with the reduction of inmate population to less than 5,000. This came to a price tag of $10.6 billion.
As a response to these reports and pressure from community groups, the de Blasio administration launched a $30 million initiative investment called Smaller, Safer, Fairer: A Roadmap to Closing Rikers Island. The 10-year program aims to continue the reduction of the Rikers inmates population, alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenders, bail modification, and repairs to existing local jails. Multiple city agencies will work together in order to resolve the first major task: reducing the city’s jail population to 7,000 within the first five years.
In addition to the moral imperative to close Rikers, there would also be a strong economic impact for the city and the families of individuals currently incarcerated. A recent report by NYC Comptroller’s Office found the rising costs of operating Rikers to be a burden for the city’s taxpayers. Moreover, a NYC Independent Budget Office report concluded that 72 percent of inmates at Rikers were not able to post bail during arraignment, making their time incarcerated at Rikers even more expensive for taxpayers.
With a reduction of 18 percent of the jail population in NYC since de Blasio took office — coupled with the overall crime reduction in recent decades — the closure of Rikers makes sense in all fronts. Among the few opponents of the permanent closure of Rikers is the Corrections Officers Benevolent Association (COBA). Due to a recent attack by inmates on a correction officer, COBA officials have called for the restoration of punitive cells and eliminating the age restriction for solitary confinement, in order to control the culture of violence at Rikers.
Additionally, certain neighborhoods in the city have also disapproved of the closure of Rikers Island. For instance in Queens’ district 30th, former Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley lost her sit by 137 votes to Robert Holden, who attacked her aggressively for her support to the permanent shutdown of Rikers. Holden argued that criminals belonged at Rikers and not in their community. Additionally, he believed that developers planned to build high-risers at Rikers. His misleading tactics eventually gave him an electoral victory.
Shutting down Rikers Island Jail Complex is imperative, as its closure would come with economic, political and social benefits. The city administration has secured four sites to replace Rikers, and will close the first major building at Rikers Island during the summer of 2018.
It appears that the 10-year plan to close Rikers is within reach, however, the closure of Rikers Island should be a priority and be completed sooner by the current and future administrations. New York City deserves better; its resources should be used towards education, housing and the more improvement the socioeconomic outcomes of its youth. Let’s move forward and close this dark chapter of NYC history!