Rikers Island: Mayor Bill de Blasio eggs on shutting down Torture Island but criminal reform activists say it is illogical

Activists say the shutting down of the Rikers would work against Blasio's commitment to reduce jail populations.

The idea to close down the notorious, horrific, and severely neglected Rikers Island jail seemed pleasing to the eyes at first. The Bill de Blasio administration (passed a bill to shutter Rikers and build four smaller jails in different boroughs of New York and the idea was met with hurrahs from most of the crowd. [Bill de Blasio is the 109th mayor of New York].  

But is it really a criminal reform? Organizations working at the grassroots level of the community say that at first blush, sure it looks like a step in the right direction but look closer and you'll find that by proceeding with the plan, we may be walking into a whole other nightmare altogether. 

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio speaks during his executive budget presentation, May 7, 2015, in New York City. During the presentation, De Blasio also discussed additional funds for road repairs, reforms at Rikers Island and public housing. (Getty Images)

"The most damning case against the plan to close Riker’s has to do with accountability", David Booth, Deputy Executive Director of Black and Pink, a city-based prison abolitionist organization supporting LGBTQ and HIV-positive prisoners. The plan to shut its doors is by 2026, long after Mayor Bill de Blasio and his current City Council shut shop.

Booth notes that while De Blasio's office is committed to significantly reducing jail populations, its move to build more jails is actually doing the opposite. "What else doesn’t make sense is our desire to punish instead of preventing and rehabilitating", he says. 

Rikers may not actually close 

Apart from the accountability factor, activists also say that there is no guarantee that "Torture Island" will close for sure. "This is an expansion plan. It has nothing to do with closing Rikers", says Black Alliance for Just Immigration spokesperson Abraham Paulos, adding that there is no "legal guarantee in the jail plan to close Rikers." If the next mayor wants, he can keep Rikers operating and have the new jails also functioning. "The bond covenant between NYC and the corporations financing these jails require an expansion of NYC’s jail capacity", he adds. 

No new jails, but better reforms 

If history has taught us anything, it is that all jails are inhuman and no matter how many we build, it will always spell disaster, says Paulos. Take Rikers for example. It was built as a humane facility that would help with rehabilitation, along with MDC Brooklyn, The Tombs, and Brooklyn House of Detention among many others.

Rikers Island jail complex stands under a blanket of snow on January 5, 2018 in the Bronx borough of New York City. Under frigid temperatures, New York City dug out from the "Bomb Cyclone." (Getty Images)

Rikers is not a prison even though it is treated like one. Many within its dark walls have been awaiting trial for years together, not convicted of any crimes while some of the others are a result of over-policing and over-criminalization of marginalized communities. Instead of spending $8.7 billion in capital funding to spring up four new jail houses, why don't we look at releasing people with pre-trial detention with bail payment or a remand hearing, suggests Paulos. 

"Decriminalize sex work, poverty, homelessness, substance use, and mental illness. End Broken Windows policing that account for hundreds of thousands of arrests and tickets per year", says Paulos, indicating that there are many effective ways to go forward with a criminal reform, one that would have a more permanent impact in the long run. Building jails harm the minorities, he says, people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQIA people. 

Expansion of jail infrastructure and capacity disproportionately harms undocumented people, who are on the frontlines of mass criminalization and are subject to the multiplied threat of deportation as a result of their immigration status. Layleen Cubilette Polanco, a 27-year-old Afro-Latina trans woman, was found dead in her cell at the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island.

She was a member of the House of Xtravaganza, a support network within the ballroom community.  The criminalization of Polanco, who deserved care instead of punishment, has showcased the particularly deadly impact of the criminal legal system on trans and gender non conforming people (TGNC).

Impact on neighborhoods

The four new jails are set to be built in Queens, Brox, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, with only Staten Island not having a new Rikers replacement jail in the 5 boroughs. While there have been numerous protests by residents and nonprofits against it, stating that it would negatively impact their lives, Council members seem convinced that this is the way to go. "It is uncontroverted that Riker’s Island is a dangerous place. The mere physical plant of the institution makes it an outdated facility", says Michael Cohen, spokesperson for Council Member Karen Koslowitz, adding that it would be safer for both "prisoners and personnel." One of the jails will be placed in Queens, under her district.

As it will be located adjacent to the criminal courthouse, the transporting of prisoners is no longer an issue. Family, friends, and lawyers will be able to visit detainees with greater ease, they believe.

A view of the entrance to the Rikers Island prison complex where Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), is being held while awaiting another bail hearing on May 17, 2011 in New York City. Strauss-Kahn was arrested on May 14 on sexual assault charges stemming for an incident with a maid at a Manhattan hotel. Strauss-Kahn was expected to announce a presidential bid for France in the coming weeks. Strauss-Kahn was transferred to Rikers on Monday after a Manhattan Criminal Court judge refused to grant him bail. (Getty Images)

Minority Leader Steven Matteo, who voted against the proposal, feels the city should continue to work on fixing Riker’s Island rather than closing it and building new jails. He thinks they would let some shady people loose on the streets. "This plan is not only ill-conceived, ambiguous and extremely costly, but it is also contingent upon further reducing a jail population, which, by the administration’s own admission, is already filled with serious and violent offenders", he says. 
 
Martin Horn, a lecturer at John Jay College, City University of New York and the Executive Director of the New York State Sentencing Commission, says that as far as impact goes, there's "not much impact." "There will be an increase in traffic and pedestrian visitors. There is no evidence that there is a public safety impact", he says. Horn says that this entire proposal is part of a large criminal justice reform effort that "reflects a growing realization that we had become too dependent on incarceration and that the previous state of affairs was damaging people and not contributing to public safety."

Rikers Island, located quite close to the runways of LaGuardia Airport is approximately 413.17 acres. What becomes of it after the jail shuts down, is yet to be determined. 


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