After years of protests to close Rikers Island Jail, New York City’s City Council finally decided to shut down the complex. While this decisions should have been met with praise, the decision was far from being a major feat. The decision has amassed significant criticism.
If you have not been following the Close Rikers Campaign, you should know that:
- Rikers Island will close, but 4 borough-based jails will be built in its place across four boroughs, Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx, and Staten Island.
- Rikers is slated to close in 2026, the projected year of completion of the replacement facilities.
- The creation of the new borough-based jails will cost nearly $9 billion
- The decision to close and replace Rikers has been touted by the mayor and others as a step out of an era of mass incarceration
Upon first glance, most people can find obvious reasons to express hostility, but a deeper probe into the safety implications of this plan suggests that many of these grievances seem misplaced.
Apparently, the fierce opposition to the plan across the citizens of the boroughs is largely premised on the idea that these new facilities will put surrounding communities at risk and that there will be an increase in crime. The latter belief is founded upon the fact that these new jails will collectively house significantly fewer inmates than did Rikers and may consequently lead to an increase in crime due to insufficient space to house those perpetrating crimes. The former concern seems a bit ludicrous considering that jail and prison escapes are rare and that inmates don’t freely roam around the communities surrounding their facilities.
At the same time, there has been less spotlight given to the fact that crime rates in NYC are at historic lows. Ideally, NYPD will fight to keep those numbers low. Instead of imagining the consequences of a spontaneous spike in crime, we can start thinking about how reduced jail spaces will further incentivize NYPD to keep crime down. At the same time, we have to consider that jails and Rikers Island in particular are essentially holding places for those who have not been convicted of their crime. The majority of these individuals have not been charged for violent crimes and are in fact, misdemeanors. Many of these individuals often end up spending more time detained on Rikers fighting their case than their sentence calls for. In light of these facts, alternatives to incarceration that allows the accused to fight their cases from home appears to be a more favorable alternative, posing little to no direct threat to the safety of communities. The latest decision to get rid of bail can easily facilitate this alternative approach to sending masses of people into jails where their risk for death, abuse, and illness will only increase.
Rikers Island, at base, is a humanitarian crisis. The facility is notorious for its abuse, violence, and neglect and its dilapidated conditions. This means that moving inmates out of Rikers is of great urgency. And while there’s no overnight solution to this problem, postponing Rikers’ closure for another decade is an undesirable solution and neglects the urgency to protect the lives of those individuals who will be detained within the grim walls of the jail. We should not have to rely on tragic stories of Kalief Browder or Jerome Murdough as reminders that jails, and Rikers Island’s specifically, have the power to destroy lives in a short period of time. Are we willing to risk the lives of thousands? Action needs to be taken for more immediate change.
One of the more pressing matters that we need to be concerned about is the fact that Rikers Island may not even close. After all, sustaining the vision to close the complex will require future mayors and city councils and therefore, leaves much reason to doubt that Rikers Island will actually be shut down.
By postponing the closure of Rikers, we are actually putting thousands of lives at risk. Rikers Island’s endless list of gross human rights violations should be indicative that a real step away from mass incarceration should not lead to the establishment of new facilities that neglect thousands of lives that will unnecessarily inhabit Rikers Island in the interim of this near-decade long project.
The real problem here is that people are more concerned with the imagined possibilities of what might happen than the actual humanitarian crisis that is Rikers Island. What will it take to resurrect a sense of compassion for our fellow human beings inside? We have to close Rikers without opening new jails. A complete overhaul of our existing system is a must.