A new report was released by the Nunez independent federal monitor just days after New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio, endorsed a proposal to close the jails on Rikers Island. The facilities, which are notorious for their history of violence among inmates and brutality at the hands of guards, have been the subject of multiple investigations by the city and federal government. This is the federal monitor’s third damning report since 2015, when New York City signed a consent decree with the Department of Justice to take steps to curb violence at Rikers. The report seemingly bolsters the case that the troubled jail is beyond reform and needs to be shut down entirely. Even with fewer than 10,000 total inmates in the system, there are 10,000 correction officers on site. Findings include evidence that guards regularly use “head strikes, wall slams, and violent takedowns often involving neck/chokeholds,” and benefit from “significant delays in disciplinary action” even when they go too far. The jailers were also faulted for frequently using pepper spray “in retaliation for an inmate’s verbal insults, threats, or swearing.”
Last year, de Blasio called the closing a “noble concept,” but stopped short of fully supporting the idea because of concerns about the high cost. His administration pushed to reform Rikers Island instead. However, on March 31, the mayor said he is behind a plan to phase out and replace the jail within 10 years by reducing the inmate population and building new facilities around the city. The pressure to close Rikers Island has been mounting since a scathing report issued by the Department of Justice in 2014 found a “pattern and practice of excessive force” against adolescent inmates at the jail. “Often, these incidents are not reported accurately and in some cases not reported at all,” the report said. “There have been instances in which inmates have been subjected to high levels of force causing injuries, only to be followed by delays in providing needed medical attention. Restrained inmates have been dragged and/or lifted by their restraints and even kicked while prone in restraints.”
Right now, Rikers is an abomination because inmates are “warehoused” on an island in the East River between Manhattan and Queens, far from their families and friends….That does not help anyone on a path to rehabilitation.
That pressure grew after the suicide of Kalief Browder, a young man who was arrested at the age of 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack and spent three years on Rikers. Much of Browder’s time was spent in solitary confinement before the charges were dropped. Like Kalief, about 85 percent of the people on Rikers are pretrial detainees, or people who have to go to the court. They are not people serving out sentences for misdemeanors. According to a PBS report, it costs approximately $80,000 a day just transporting people to the courts and back. Many think it’s a prison, but it’s a jail and that means they spend a lot of money bringing people back and forth. Kalief’s story has been highly publicized, especially with the recent release of the Spike TV/Jay Z collaboration highlighting the gritty details of his struggle to escape the flawed system. That drew a lot of attention to the court delays, systemic problems and also the layout and age of the physical building, which raised questions – like “why are people spending so much time there?”
“I believe our prophets come in many shapes or forms…Sometimes our prophets come in the form of young undeveloped energy that will teach all us grown-ups how to love better and have more compassion.” – Jay Z
The New York Times stated in their editorial last year that the place should close and the speaker of the city council came out saying this was her goal. “Right now, Rikers is an abomination,” said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, because inmates are “warehoused” on an island in the East River between Manhattan and Queens, far from their families and friends. “That does not help anyone on a path to rehabilitation,” Mark-Viverito said, “so the idea of a community-based approach is laudable, I think. And it will have to lead to tough conversations and tough decisions.”
The death of Kalief Browder was a wake-up call to this city. His death shook the whole city and opened everyone’s eyes and made people think twice.
Mayor de Blasio, who is running for reelection this year, said he was reluctant to close Rikers Island until a viable replacement was in sight. “The death of Kalief Browder was a wake-up call to this city,” de Blasio said. “His death shook the whole city and opened everyone’s eyes and made people think twice.” He also says falling crime rates and bail reform efforts convinced him that the city jail population could be brought down to about 5000 within a decade, making the plan to replace Rikers possible. “A year ago, we didn’t think it could be done,” de Blasio said. “It would been irresponsible for me to say we had a plan if we didn’t have a real plan.” An expert panel that’s been studying the issue for more than a year released its recommendations and called for the facilities to be near the courts. De Blasio would not say where those new jail facilities might be located. Any potential locations would require approval from the city council, and would likely face significant local opposition. “It will take many years,” de Blasio said at a news conference at City Hall. “It will take many tough decisions along the way. But it will happen.”
According to a draft plan obtained by The New York Times, the panel recommends replacing the Rikers Island complex and building smaller jails in each of the city’s five boroughs. While the plan has the support of the City Council and many criminal justice reform advocates, it will cost billions of dollars and face resistance at the community level. Opposition from Correction Officers Benevolent Association, the powerful prison guard union, can also be expected. While there are already some holding facilities next to the courts like Brooklyn House of Detention and The Tombs in Manhattan, others would have to be built out.
Having watched “Time: The Kalief Browder Story” and personally witnessed the demise of young men who spent years on the Island, let’s pray we don’t have to lose many more lives in the decade it will take to disband the facilities.