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Long Overdue: Rikers Island, America’s Most Notorious Prison, Is Closing at Last

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Rikers Island is closing. Although it will not happen overnight and will likely take years to accomplish, the behemoth complex of jails known for its brutality, torture and other human rights abuses will be shut down. Over the years, Rikers has earned the reputation as America’s most notorious prison.

In a March 31 press conference with New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the 10-year plan to close Rikers.

“New York City has always been better than Rikers Island. I am proud to chart a course for our city that lives up to this reality,” de Blasio said. “Our success in reducing crime and reforming our criminal justice system has paved a path off Rikers Island and toward community-based facilities capable of meeting our criminal justice goals.”

Noting that Rikers Island is part of a national problem, the mayor said that, while the mass-incarceration problem did not begin in New York, it will end there. Since the facility opened in 1932, this marks the first time the city has made closing Rikers its official policy.

Mayor de Blasio tweeted about the significance of this decision:

Although the jail has been around for 85 years, Rikers Island has an older history fittingly steeped in the enslavement of Black people. As Vice reported, the Rikers (the Anglicized version of Rycken) were a wealthy Dutch family that settled the island in the 1660s at a time when New York was still known as New Amsterdam. From 1815 to 1838, the family patriarch, Richard Riker, oversaw the city’s criminal court. Part of his responsibilities included deeming free Black children, women and men as “fugitive slaves,” allowing for their kidnapping to the South by bounty hunters without a trial. Riker received kickbacks from slave catchers, and he and two slave-catching police officers were known as the “Kidnapping Club” by abolitionists.

Sadly, this sordid history of Rikers Island has continued to plague the facility, which is the second-largest in America after Los Angeles County Jail. The conglomeration of 10 jails sitting on the 400-acre island houses mostly men (93 percent), but also women and juveniles. Throughout a given year, 77,000 people go through Rikers, with 10,000 inmates detained on a given day. In the 1980s and 1990s, the jail population was double current numbers. The prison population is 89 percent Black and Latino (56 percent African-American and 33 percent Latino) — from New York’s low-income communities — and only 7.5 percent white.

Eighty-five percent of Rikers inmates have not been convicted of a crime and are pretrial detainees, with the rest serving short sentences of a year or less, as The New York Times reports. Around 40 percent of detainees have a mental illness, according to the Urban Institute.

The decision to close Rikers comes in the midst of longstanding problems of violence, brutality and inhumane living conditions for those detained there. For example, mentally ill detainees have died in custody. Rikers continues to place inmates in solitary confinement, an internationally condemned form of physical and psychological torture, with Black and Latino inmates subjected to the punishment at a much higher rate than whites.

According to a report from the federal monitor overseeing Rikers since 2015, the abuse continues, with guards using excessive force at an “alarming rate.” For example, it is common for correction officers to place inmates in chokeholds, punch them in the head while handcuffed, slam them into walls and douse them with pepper spray. The jails also are an environmental disaster, with regular flooding, crumbling infrastructure with dilapidated facilities, a putrid landfill and pollution-belching power plant, and overheated conditions that have given Rikers the nickname “The Oven,” as Grist reported. With no central air conditioning in the summer months, some prisoners have suffered from cardiovascular conditions, heat stroke, rashes and asthma, and some have attempted suicide. One homeless veteran was baked to death in his hot cell that overheated to at least 100 degrees from faulty equipment.

Things came to a head with the story of Kalief Browder, who was arrested and sent to Rikers at age 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack. He was never charged. While there, in a story revealed by The New Yorker, Browder endured three years of torture at Rikers, including beatings by guards from his first day behind bars, and starvation. After his release, Browder committed suicide in June 2015 at age 22, using an air conditioning cord to hang himself. This was a consequence of depression from the abuse he had suffered. The Marshall Project interviewed his mother, Venida Browder, for a video series called We Are Witnesses.

New York City Public Advocate Letitia James wants to rename the island after Browder, given the planned shuttering of the infamous jail.

Although de Blasio has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to improving conditions at Rikers, the time has come to phase out America’s most notorious jail. A report unveiled by the Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform maps out a plan to shut down the jail. Condemning the facility as a “19th-century solution to a 21st-century problem,” the commission calls for reducing the jail population by half to 5,000 and placing the remaining inmates in new facilities around the city.

The report makes a number of other recommendations, including reforming arrests by diverting tens of thousands of low-level offenders from traditional prosecution and reducing the number of people in pretrial detention so that people do not have to wait months or years in jail for the resolution of their cases.

“Finally, we recommend an approach to punishment that prioritizes meaningful sentences and a judicious use of incarceration for all types of cases,” the report said.

Rikers Island has been used as a torture chamber for Black people for far too long. Its end will come, though not soon enough.

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