Rikers Island is an area in New York City that houses one of America’s largest detention facilities, which is widely known for its unspeakable living conditions and inhumane treatment of its inmates. For many years, local prison reformers and abolitionist organizations have been working to raise awareness about the dangerous and worsening conditions at Rikers. For years, these groups have been pressuring city officials to consider closing the facility, on the grounds that the institution is widely seen as “synonymous with brutality, incompetence, corruption and neglect” and “directly associated with slavery” (The New York Times Editorial Board, 2017). In 2019, the decision to close Rikers Island was actually accepted by the city, and a plan was made to build smaller, “more humane” prisons; although this original plan was abandoned shortly thereafter, New York City officials have again begun to revisit the age-old debate regarding whether to close Rikers Island, and what the process of building alternative jails in New York City would look like.
The basis on which city officials are operating – that Rikers Island should be shut down – is absolutely correct. Rikers is an inhumane institution that violates the basic human rights of its constituents and should immediately be shut down permanently. However, proponents of the plan to create new jails are also operating under the assumption that we need to replace Rikers with any jails at all, when we simply do not (Bliss, 2022).
In order to understand the lack of need for new jails in the New York City area, it is imperative to first understand the composition of “inmates” at Rikers: the individuals being held at Rikers, either 1) are awaiting their court date but either cannot afford bail or have been deemed a flight risk or “danger to society” , 2) have violated parole, or 3) are serving sentences less than one year long (usually for misdemeanors).
93% of the individuals currently being held at Rikers are in the first of the above categories: they are awaiting trial, and therefore have not yet been found guilty of a crime (Binns, 2021). Detaining people who have not been convicted of any crime contradicts the basis of America’s justice system, wherein individuals are supposedly considered “innocent until proven guilty”. Instead of this current system of detaining individuals who cannot afford bail, all individuals who are arrested should be Released on Recognizance (RORed) until their court date, especially since data consistently show that releasing people pretrial does not affect crime rates (Prison Policy Initiative, 2021).
The other large percentage of individuals currently being held at Rikers, are being held for probation or parole violations and have not actually committed a crime. In fact, 16% of people in all New York State jails (18% nationally) are in for probation/parole violations (Glazer, E. 2017). Using incarceration as a punishment for parole violations, which include returning home after curfew or being unable to find employment by a specific date, is not only excessive, but also makes successful reentry and reintegration from prison significantly more difficult, and explains, to some degree, the country’s high recidivism rates. As such, if parole violations were punishable through other, more logical and correlated means, such as more time on parole or community service instead of incarceration, the population of incarcerated individuals in the entire state of New York would immediately drop by 16% (Prison Policy Initiative, 2021).
If all people in New York State jails waiting for trial (excluding “extremely dangerous” individuals, in order to appease those worried about rising crime rates) were RORed, and parole violators were no longer allowed to be reincarcerated, the only major remaining group occupying New York State jails would be those serving sentences less than one year (also called “city sentences”), which in 2017, was 1,300 people in the entire state. In this case, no new jails would need to be built, and the oldest jails in the worst conditions, which include Rikers as well as several others, could be shut down permanently (Glazer, E. 2017).
Instead of these simple changes, city officials have formed an 8-billion-dollar plan to build smaller, more humane jails within local communities, which house those currently being held at Rikers. However, with the two reforms described above, the incarcerated population within the city would be so small that building new jails would not be necessary; instead, these funds can be utilized to implement preventative measures in order to ameliorate the issue of incarceration, by funneling funds into low-income Communities of Color whose members are at an increased risk of poverty and incarceration.
Likewise, 89% of individuals detained at Rikers Island are Black and Brown individuals, and 59% do not have a high school diploma (Statistical Atlas, 2023). The vast majority of detainees are from low income families and have been caught up in a criminal legal system that disproportionately imprisons People of Color and keeps those who cannot pay in prison. In this way, the country perpetuates a cycle of incarceration that continues to suppress People of Color.
As such, increased funding for community programs and education, for example, would improve the opportunities for young people in these communities, as the funds would be working directly against the school to prison pipeline that funnels so many young people into jails and prisons every year. Suffice to say, it is past time for this country to stop denying the racist and discriminatory reality of our criminal legal system, and to, instead, start advocating for preventative measures that will push against the continuation of mass incarceration and the cycle of poverty that so deeply affects millions of Black and Brown families across the United States.
Binns, S. (2021). Statement by the Board of Trustees on the ongoing crisis at Rikers Island. CASES. https://www.cases.org/2021/11/18/statement-by-the-board-of-trustees-on-the-ongoing-crisis-at-rikers-island/
Bliss, E. (2022). Living and Dying on Rikers Island: The Latest Installment. Prison Legal News. https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/news/2022/feb/1/living-and-dying-rikers-island-latest-installment/
Glazer, E. (2022). Justice Brief: Jail: City Sentences 2017. NYC Criminal Justice: The City of New York.
Prison Policy Initiative. (2020). Releasing people pretrial doesn’t harm public safety. Prison Policy Initiative. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2020/11/17/pretrial-releases/
Prison Policy Initiative. (2021). Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2022. Prison Policy Initiative. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2022.html
Schwirtz, M. (2017). What is Rikers Island? The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/16/nyregion/what-is-happening-at-rikers-island.html
Statistical Atlas. (2023). Demographics and Educational Attainment in Rikers Island, New York, New York. The Demographic Statistical Atlas of the United States. https://statisticalatlas.com/neighborhood/New-York/New-York/Rikers-Island/Educational-Attainment
The New York Times Editorial Board. (2017). Opinion | Closing Rikers Without a Road Map. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/03/opinion/closing-rikers-without-a-road-map.html?module=inline