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Opinion Closing Rikers Island is a matter of life and death

A security fence surrounds inmate housing at the Rikers Island correctional facility in New York on Monday, Sept. 27. (Jeenah Moon/AP)
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Isaabdul Karim wasn’t sentenced to death. In fact, he was never sentenced at all. But after the father of two was accused of a non-violent parole violation and sent to Rikers Island, on Sept. 19 he became the 11th person this year to die in a New York city jail.

A wheelchair user with health complications, Karim was kept in an intake cell for 10 days without adequate access to food or medication. His lawyers asked for early release in a hearing cut short when Karim suffered an asthma attack; before Karim could return to court, he contracted covid-19 and died.

Karim is just one victim of Rikers’s horrific conditions. Nearly 6,000 people are detained there, most of whom await trial. Detainees have gone without food, water, toilets, showers, or access to lawyers and doctors. And chronic mismanagement — staff shifts are still organized on index cards — has left the prison unable to handle hundreds of employees calling out sick, even though the remaining officer-to-prisoner ratio is well above the national average.

It’s a civil rights emergency, of the kind endemic in U.S. jails and prisons. Millions of incarcerated people face conditions so violent they trigger PTSD, and so unhealthy that covid-19 has spread in jails and prisons at more than five times the rate it spread through the U.S. population. Increasingly common climate disasters such as Hurricane Ida force even more incarcerated people across the country into unsanitary, dangerous facilities.

When jails and prisons are hotbeds for human rights violations, they defeat the supposed purpose of criminal justice. My father, William vanden Heuvel, served as chair of New York City’s Board of Correction under Mayor John V. Lindsay and fought deplorable conditions at Rikers and beyond. He observed: “The men and women who go in as burglars often come out as robbers, and those who go in as robbers may well come out as murderers.”

Research bears that out. With an incarceration system giving priority to punishment over rehabilitation, the United States has one of the highest recidivism rates in the world: more than ¾ of released prisoners are arrested again within five years. As Shon Hopwood of the Brennan Center writes, ”If you were to design a system to perpetuate intergenerational cycles of violence and imprisonment in communities already overburdened by criminal justice involvement, then the American prison system is what you would create.”

This untenable situation demands an immediate end to the Rikers crisis, and systemic change to reform the United States’s criminal justice system.

In 2019 — thanks in part to recommendations from an independent commission led by the former chief judge of New York’s highest court — the New York City Council approved a plan to shut down Rikers. But it’s already too little, too late: Rikers won’t close until 2026, and it would be replaced with four new jails.

Meanwhile, disorder has so overtaken the complex that closing Rikers is now a matter of life or death. One promising development is Gov. Kathy Hochul’s (D)recent state of emergency declaration, which will allow remote court hearings to accelerate casework — although eliminating bail practices, releasing those detained for minor parole violations and utilizing work-release for some sentences could reduce Rikers’s population further. Hochul also signed the Less Is More Act, which ends incarceration for most minor non-criminal offenses. But for Karim, the bill was too late — he missed the cutoff to qualify for release by two days.

The only adequate solution: shut down Rikers immediately and release its detainees, as four members of New York’s congressional delegation have demanded. This won’t mean letting convicted criminals walk free — most Rikers detainees are presumed innocent and simply unable to post bail. It hardly makes anyone safer to make them wait out trials in an environment breeding violence, sickness and resentment. As Osborne Society President Elizabeth Gaynes testified last week in a New York State Assembly hearing on Rikers: “What causes violence that undervalues human life is a system that undervalues human life.”

Fifty years ago, inmates at a New York prison protested inhumane conditions reminiscent of Rikers today. That protest ended in one of the bloodiest prison riots in U.S. history. A speech my father gave about that day at Attica ends with a call-to-action that still has truth: “We must take those walls down. We must lift the bars of those cages. We must walk into prisons again as a community, recognizing that the citizens who are there are temporarily there and will return to us.”