Photo: Ashley Gilbertson | New York Magazine
There needs to be reform in New York City's prison system. People should go in to serve their sentences rather than to die. Rikers Island saw 19 total deaths in 2022, the most in nearly a decade.
Rikers Island is New York City's main jail complex that resides on the East River in the Bronx. The complex has a long history of abuse and negligence toward its prisoners.
Most Rikers Island detainees are pre-trial defendants, meaning they are being held on bail pending trial. Other inmates at Rikers are serving terms of less than a year. Given Rikers is primarily a holding facility, the fact that individuals are dying there speaks volumes about the New York City jail system.
As advocates became more outraged over the mistreatment of the inmates, the City Council approved a deal to close the jail by 2026 and build borough-based jails. It was later extended until 2027 to provide for more planning time. However, the current administration has expressed concern about the feasibility of this proposal.
In December 2021, the Adams administration stated that closing the complex was "intentionally ambiguous," and in September 2022, Mayor Eric Adams still expressed doubts about closing the complex set by the previous administration's legal deadline.
The City Council and the residents of New York City must hold the Adams administration accountable for enforcing legislation set by the previous administration. The conditions within Rikers Island are unethical and a more controlled prison complex will better serve New York.
The Rikers Island facilities are riddled with poor sightlines, broken cell doors and sewage leaks and were built on deteriorating landfills. According to a report released by the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, repairing the prison will be more expensive than building new city jails.
The report describes how replacing the troublesome jail will result in two-billion-dollar annual savings in operating costs that can be reinvested into prison reform programs.
Prisoner rehabilitation is necessary as a component of prison reform. Instead of perpetuating a cycle of incarceration, jails should focus on rehabilitating inmates and reintegrating them into society.
Programs that address their mental health concerns, advance their education and prepare them for the job market can all be beneficial. Any prison reform programs may be conducted more effectively in smaller borough-based institutions where services are not interrupted by the dysfunctional environment.
Furthermore, jails close to the cities will save commute time. "Health care, services and recreation are hard to access," the report states. "The jails' isolation and lack of public transportation impede court production and visits from families, service providers and attorneys".
The problems that plague the Riker jails are inherent in its design. They cannot be saved, so we must press the Adams administration to follow through on the plans to close Rikers.
Although Adams has expressed support for the project, his actions have contradicted the plan's objectives. The plan is contingent on a reduced city prison population, despite incarceration rates rising in recent years. As of the annual mayor's management report, the average daily inmate population in custody was 5,559, up from the previous year.
To allow for a smooth transition into smaller, more regulated borough-based jails, a maximum of 3300 people must be imprisoned at Rikers by 2027, when it can no longer legally operate.
Adams has implemented a new initiative that adds to the high rate of incarcerated people in the city. The most recent is a forced hospitalization directive aimed at the mentally ill. The misguided policy criminalizes mental illness rather than diverting resources to those who seek care.
The Adams administration must prioritize reducing the city's total incarceration rate by addressing the factors that lead people to jail and/or keep them in a cycle of incarceration.
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, drugs account for 45.1% of all offenses committed by inmates nationally. Weapons, explosives and arson offenses rank second at 21.5%.
Decriminalizing drugs and permitting them to be used recreationally has the potential to reduce incarceration rates. When marijuana became legal in New York State, people who were imprisoned for marijuana charges had their records expunged. Similar measures can be implemented to minimize imprisonment rates.
The land on which Rikers Island is located has a promising future. According to the Lippman Commission, if the proposal to close it down is successful, New York will have its first green infrastructure center.
The facility is over 400 acres (about half the area of Central Park in New York City) in size and using it to encourage climate change projects is something New Yorkers should fight for.
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