Now, Rikers will probably be closed for nearly the same reason it was opened.
The New York City Council voted on Thursday afternoon in favor of an $8 billion plan that would replace the facility with jails in four of the city’s five boroughs. The council’s speaker, Corey Johnson, who supported the proposal, called Rikers a “stain on New York City.”
Together with other changes at the state level, the proposal includes criminal justice reforms that are expected to cut the city’s incarcerated population by more than half in the next six years. But even then, the long-standing scars of Rikers — and the system that filled it with about 7,000 inmates at a time — has stirred a potent, emotional debate: Should those new jails be built?
The plan’s not a sure thing. It will rely on the will of future city councils and mayors to close Rikers by 2026. Proponents say a reduced number of 3,300 inmates in those jails would be closer to courthouses, family members and social services that focus on things such as mental health and job training.
“This is about valuing our people, no longer condemning people and sending them on a pathway that only made their lives worse and worse,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) said in a news conference after the vote. “Today we made history: The era of mass incarceration is over.”
But some, like Jarrod Shanahan, who was jailed briefly at Rikers and co-wrote a forthcoming book on the complex’s history, only sees history repeating itself.
“The idea that a new jail can fix the problems of the old one is a long-standing misconception that has driven the carceral expansion of New York City,” Shanahan, a criminal justice professor at Governors State University in Illinois, said in an interview with The Washington Post.
Upon the first jail’s opening in 1935, the new facility was advertised as “an enormous model penitentiary,” the New York Times wrote, “ample in size to serve for many years to come and which in all its plans and parts should be the most perfect prison in the world.”
Even from the beginning, however, it suffered from severe problems: persistent rat infestations, spontaneous fires and an unassailable stench, CityLab reported, as prisoners were forced to pick through garbage later used as landfill to expand the island’s size. It only grew from there, expanding to include 10 jails, a solitary-confinement complex, a power plant and more than a dozen beds next to the women’s dorm, for babies who were born there, according to the Marshall Project.
The movement to close Rikers gained steam following the death of Kalief Browder, who killed himself in 2015, shortly after his release. He had spent three years in jail there, without a trial or conviction, before his charge of allegedly stealing a backpack was eventually dismissed.
Even then, other deaths and horrors make up a lengthy list. In 2008, a corrections officer was indicted in an assault case involving inmates in which teens were allegedly used as enforcers. Five years later, inmate Bradley Ballard was locked in a cell for six days, and then found naked and covered in urine and feces. Earlier this year, Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman, died at Rikers after she was placed into a program that was, according to several former Rikers inmates, equivalent to solitary confinement.
Those abuses propelled the city council to hire an independent commission to investigate the city’s criminal justice system. But they also sparked a swell of grass-roots activism, largely united around three words: No New Jails.
The presence of that campaign was unavoidable inside and outside Thursday’s vote at City Hall, where supporters on the balcony shouted, “You’re on the wrong side of history!” and threw fliers over the railing that read: “If you cage our future, blood on your hands.”
“There is no such thing as a safe, humane, dignified, or well-designed jail,” group leader Brittney Williams told THE CITY. “Every jail in NYC is a torture chamber and the new ones will be the same.”
That sentiment extended to the floor of City Hall, where a dozen or so lawmakers voiced their opposition to the plan, on the grounds that it simply outsourced the problems that are present at Rikers.
“The conversation that started at City Hall has not gone far enough,” said councilman Rafael Espinal (D), who represents a rapidly gentrifying sector of Brooklyn, according to the New York Daily News. “When the city should have been pumping money into strengthening and nurturing my community, it was neglecting it.”
Opposition to the plan also came from residents of neighborhoods where the new jails would be built, as well as some critics from the right, who argued that shuttering Rikers would make the city less safe. The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, which represents more than 10,000 officers, also said that goals of reducing the prison population were too optimistic.
“There is simply no way to cut the average daily jail population … that much more without leaving dangerous criminals on the street,” wrote Rafael A. Mangual, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute.
But all four of the lawmakers who would have jails expanded or built in their district voted in favor of the plan. So did Diana Ayala, a Democratic councilwoman from the South Bronx, dedicating her vote to a younger brother who had suffered from mental health issues and spent time in several jails, including Rikers.
“We abandoned him as a community, we abandoned him as a city and we abandoned him as a family,” Ayala said. “I know in my heart I am doing the right thing.”