Op-Ed: Rikers Island, a Longstanding Emergency That We Can End

The limelight is once again shining on the inhumane conditions at the notorious city jail. Two abolitionists explain how to shut down operations on the island without expanding NYC's carceral system.

Mon M and Rosa P Sep 30, 2021

As the pandemic becomes an enduring crisis, New Yorkers are being forced to question what kind of city they hope to build as they face a series of catastrophic events. Will we embrace our criminalized communities or turn our backs on them? As they always have been, those incarcerated in city jails have been at the center of these questions. Recently, those on Rikers Island have been enduring record-breaking COVID-19 surges, blazing temperatures and flooding, and a long-standing healthcare crisis. Not all have survived. 

In May of 2020, organizers documented New York City’s delayed and inadequate response to the COVID-19 crisis within jails, noting that the pandemic was overwhelmingly affecting Black and Latinx people inside. Cleaning supplies and PPE were hard to come by, cells were cramped and medical neglect rife. At this time, thousands rallied to demand releases from city jails, correctly predicting that the crisis would only become worse as the rate of infection within Rikers became 87x higher than the US rate.  Groups such as Prisons Policy Initiative and Free Them All for Public Health demonstrated how health inside detention and jail facilities can have damaging impacts on health outside, particularly as a consequence of unmasked jail staff. 

We remember Juan Cruz, Raymond Riviera, Joel Howard, Walter Ance, Kevin del Rosario, and Michael Tyson as some of the victims of New York City’s poorly managed COVID-19 crisis within jails. 

Thomas Braunson III, 35, who had no underlying health conditions and was being held on Rikers pre-trial for a shoplifting charge, was found dead in his cell on April 19. On June 30, Robert Jackson, 42, who was being held for burglary charges, also pre-trial, was discovered unresponsive in his cell.  This happens all too often. Thomas and Robert represent just two of 12 recorded deaths in 2021 under Department of Corrections custody, most of them occurring in Rikers. We also remember Jose Mejia Martinez, 35; Robert Jackson, 42; Karim Isaabdul, 42 and Esias Johnson, 24 among the other unnamed people who have lost their lives. This is an extraordinary and unprecedented level of violence in a penal colony that is normally already uninhabitable. 

When a group of New York public officials went to visit the jail in September, they described people being held in intake cells for months, rotting garbage festering with maggots, medical neglect, frequent attempted suicides, and more.

Read the thread for more.

These descriptions of current conditions inside Rikers recall conditions from early in the pandemic, which recall conditions from 2019, when the negligence of jail staff directly led to the death of Layleen Polanco, which then recall conditions from 2016, when Candie Hailey-Means attempted suicide over 8 times due to unbearable heat inside the jail, or even those in 1974, when Assata Shakur was refused healthcare after giving birth — and so on back to the beginning of incarceration on Rikers. The current emergency inside the ten jails on the island is not only about the crisis of deaths or understaffing now, but about a status quo which turns its back on over 6,000 incarcerated people, the majority of whom are poor, disabled and Black New Yorkers. 

Cameron, 21, who was released from Rikers on September 9 said to Curbed, “The inmates come together to help each other — the inmates are the ones that’s feeding us and helping each other; the COs don’t do nothing.” 

Efforts to make sense of the current emergency have focused primarily on the pandemic’s impact on corrections officers, without contextualizing the overall disaster within the jails as a result of mass incarceration itself.  Even as judges drive the crisis forward by continuing to sentence people to jail, Vincent Schiraldi, the commissioner of the Department of Corrections (DOC) and Mayor de Blasio are doing their best to characterize the situation as an issue of employment. 

There are higher numbers of corrections officers employed by the DOC than people currently incarcerated in the jails. Outlets such as the New York Times have focused on understaffing as a primary contributor to the rate of suicides and self-harm within Rikers, while simultaneously ignoring the media’s own fear-mongering about crime rates and how this has led to overcrowding. Moreover, there has been little focus on the role of the courts, where judges and district attorneys continue to send people to Rikers on bail, despite knowing that it is tantamount to a death sentence. 

As Roshan Abraham writes for Slate, “Rikers has a dramatically higher staffing ratio than any other jail across the country — even on days when roughly 2,000 people are unavailable to work.” Narratives about understaffing obscure the true source of the crisis: longstanding mismanagement, neglect, abuse and callousness toward the lives of incarcerated people. The city must transition it’s 7,000+ corrections officers into less dangerous work and retrain them for roles that do not involve beating or punishing people. 

Instead of working to decarcerate the city’s jail population drastically over the long term and shut down Rikers immediately, Schiraldi and de Blasio have promised minimal repairs and to hire more guards while suspending AWOL officers. Governor Kathy Hochul, who has the power to unilaterally shut down Rikers, signed the #LessIsMore Act, releasing 191 people who were inside on technical violations. 191, while significant, is a drop in the bucket of the over 6,000 currently incarcerated in NYC jails. Although Less Is More begins the project of massively decarcerating Rikers, Hochul must use her power to do more in the face of such an expansive catastrophe.

The Board of Corrections (BOC), appointed by De Blasio to oversee the Department of Corrections, is another city body that could ostensibly do more to stop the crisis. Activists, public defenders and family of people incarcerated on Rikers have repeatedly called on the BOC to take drastic political measures towards decarceration and to stop conceding to the DOC requests to roll back the basic minimum standards for the health and well-being of incarcerated people at Rikers. These demands go unheeded, the Board struggles to meet quorum and when they do, most members vote in favor of the DOC’s continued impunity. Unlike these political officials, our responsibility as New Yorkers and as those who organize alongside incarcerated people to build a city without cages is to move beyond willful political amnesia and towards the long-term vision that reduces the harm and brings about a cage-free NYC.

Actually Shutting it Down

Where and how we tell the story of the end of Rikers matters. 

The majority of people held inside NYC jails are held pre-trial, meaning they have not been convicted of anything. New Yorkers have been attempting to decarcerate and shut down Rikers for decades. Most recently, since Kalief Browder’s story of bail, jail and custodial murder made national news in 2015, city officials have floated various plans to shrink the island’s jail population. 

Rather than directing resources towards ending pre-trial detention, or reducing the city’s scale of policing, however, Mayor de Blasio opted for jail expansion with the borough based jail plan as a means of shutting down the jails. With the city council land use vote on construction of new jails in 2019, a move which was widely opposed in the boroughs, the council claimed it was finally “closing Rikers.”

Repeatedly, the city and supporters of the plan have argued the borough-based jails plan is the fastest, most humane way to close down the penal colony once and for all. The plan, according to the city, will create four new “modern,” “humane” jails that are “smaller, safer and fairer” in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens. The plan carries a hefty and unjustifiable price tag of $10 billion plus, with some of the funds going towards jail renovations for Rikers until the penal colony is supposed to be shuttered by 2027 and everyone left in the jails moved to the borough based facilities. 

The city is building the new jails without shutting down the Rikers penal colony during a time where hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are going unhoused, unemployed or being evicted from their homes as NYC becomes the most expensive city in the U.S. There are direct correlations between the budgets for policing and incarceration, and the budgets for social services and housing; the money for the borough based jails plan, for example, comes from capital spending which could otherwise be allocated towards schools, housing and parks. 

It is essential we act now to demand Rikers be emptied and shut down without compromise, in anticipation of former NYPD captain Eric Adams taking office as Mayor.

The borough-based plan has been decisively refuted by numerous city organizations, advocates and people incarcerated inside the city jails. Several organizations which initially supported the plan have pulled out due to its limited focus on improving jail conditions. Many joined year-long protests against the borough based jails plan and although construction has commenced — amidst a historic recession and housing crisis — they continue in their opposition. A bloc of socialist and progressive incoming city council members have even pledged to work to stop the borough-based jail plan from moving forward once in office.  

In the absence of real leadership and vision by one of the most highly funded municipal governments in the country, several organizers and grassroots groups have delivered decarceration plans which would shut down Rikers without building new jails. 

We know this is possible because since 2012, the jail population of NYC has been reduced by 6,000. At the height of COVID-19, the DOC took common-sense action to release over 1,000 people. Despite what mainstream media has to say about crime rates, the overall rate of “crime” has been halved over the last two decades and according to the NYPD’s own records, has not spiked in the past year. Recommendations for further decarceration and reducing NYC’s carceral dragnet come from groups such as The People’s Plan NYC, the Democratic Socialists for America of NYC and Cage Free NYC

In particular, Cage Free NYC highlights a holistic path to decarceration which includes reducing police interactions with the public, resulting in fewer arrests; reducing funding for prosecutors and the DOC, resulting in fewer sentences and expanding investment in re-entry services (such as free education, free vocational training) without police involvement or electronic incarceration. Moreover, steps to curb the power of the courts and to reduce the levels of policing within NYC would significantly reduce jail populations. By de-carcerating to such an extent and reducing the amount of people moving in and out of not just jails, but courts, the city would not have a need for extra beds after Rikers is shut down.  

“Jail expansion is a choice, but not the only one. The city is choosing jail expansion, but closing Rikers is possible without new jails,” says Cage Free NY. 

City officials argue that demands to shut down Rikers immediately without new jails are unrealistic, but organizers have repeatedly demonstrated the viability of reforms through decades-long efforts. In fact, the city itself has modeled that a radical reduction in jail population is possible in what it has accomplished since 2012 alone. At every stage, the most robust of reforms have been curbed by city and state officials or poorly enforced, not by the public, including bail reform rollbacks and protests against the implementation of #HALTSolitary.  

Rikers Island was itself a reform, built to recover from the injustices of Blackwell’s Island mental asylum, and if prison profiteers continue in their ways, more reforms will be used to deal with crises like the one inside NYC jails now — only to require undoing years or decades later. Rikers is not exceptional, but rather typical of the neglect and abuse that come with the carceral state. 

What’s Next

Photo: The Illuminator.

Hundreds of thousands of people poured into New York City’s streets after the police killings of George Floyd, Tony McDade, and Breonna Taylor among so many others as part of a global uprising against anti-Black violence. The area surrounding Manhattan’s City Hall was occupied by protesters for three weeks and deemed “Abolition Park,” while millions were raised for bail and jail support funds. In a historic moment, abolitionist visions saw widespread recognition as people demanded that the NYPD be defunded, and that New York City #freethemall. 

In the months during and after the historic summer of protest, the city did the opposite of what was being demanded. It has pushed forward a white supremacist, colonial and capitalist land-grab jail expansion plan, committed to hiring more corrections officers (a move that was opposed by formerly incarcerated people) and more employees for prosecutors and expanded policing under the guise of hate crime response. 

From these trends in expanded policing and supervision, we can garner several takeaways: 

  1. The borough-based jails plan is part and parcel of reforms which expand the size and scope of incarceration within NYC. 
  2. No plan to respond to the current crisis inside Rikers can leave out policies within the city which are sending far more people inside than they are releasing. 
  3. In order to shut down Rikers, we need more than incremental and meager reforms which drive funds towards incarceration instead of towards holistic, non-carceral and free support. 

In 2020 and 2021, the municipal budget fight in NYC has failed to stop city council from allocating significant funds to the NYPD and the borough based jails plan, even as efforts to abolish the Administration for Child Services and for police free schools gain steam. 

In the city’s efforts to push through more cages, more cops and more courts, we can identify an alarming shock doctrine at play. For example, although Black and Asian communities in the city have repeatedly protested the use of policing as a solution to white supremacist violence against them, the city has utilized these incidents to establish a “hate crimes task force.” Not just in New York City, but institutions and corporations across the US have seized on the widespread confusion and disorientation propelled by COVID-19 to bolster their bottom lines and expand oppressive policies. 

But abolitionists have held the line that a jail is a jail, and that no reform which drives funds towards police and prisons is a viable path towards ending the prisons industrial complex here in NYC and around the world. As the People’s Plan writes, “For every criminalized New Yorker, there is a social safety net or resource that has failed them. We must divest from systems that create undue harm to Black people, people of color, migrants, women, queer and trans people, low-income, and most impacted by the City’s policies, and not recreate these systems in other forms.” 

The city must redirect the 10 billion allotted to the new borough based jails towards immediate decarceration. Critical to this approach is the understanding that mass incarceration is never simply what happens inside a jail, but what kind of lives people live before they end up inside a jail, and when they leave.

It is essential we act now to demand Rikers be emptied and shut down without compromise, in anticipation of former NYPD captain Eric Adams taking office as Mayor. Although we are trapped in a loop that replaces old jails with new ones, “bad cops” with “new cops,” and bail with “supervision,” we can organize ourselves out of this cycle. Even as construction has begun on the new jails, we have several opportunities to stop the flow of funds towards the jails and police. We also have an opportunity to support the strategies which exist to shut down Rikers immediately without new jails, with expanded holistic re-entry services, which prioritize harm reduction, welfare, and mental health without police involvement. 

It is up to New Yorkers and their communities, to those who have been criminalized and harmed by the prison industrial complex, to change the bounds of what is possible, once again. City officials, prosecutors, and direct service nonprofits are choosing to maintain incarceration —but there are other choices on the table. 

Mon M (@cemicool) is one of the authors of Cage Free NYC, and a former organizer of No New Jails. Rosa P is an abolitionist organizer and legal worker in New York City.

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