Situated in the middle of the East River between Queens and the Bronx lies Rikers Island, home to one of the largest, and most infamous, correctional facilities in the country. Out of sight for all, and out of mind for too many, Rikers has served as the primary jail for New York City for more than 80 years.
On any given day, the inmate population on Rikers is a little less than 10,000 people. This represents a significant improvement from the days, not too long ago, when the daily head count was upwards of 22,000.
It is worth pausing to acknowledge this success. Over the past generation, at a time when the rest of the United States experienced an explosive growth in incarceration, New York City managed to cut its jail population by more than half while significantly improving public safety.
This is no small achievement. In many respects, New York City is much closer to Europe when it comes to the administration of justice than it is to the rest of the United States. Unlike many other jurisdictions, New York City has a vibrant defense bar, a history of progressive prosecution, a system of appointing criminal court judges based on merit, and a rich tradition of supporting alternative-to-incarceration programs.
But recent events in Texas and Louisiana and Minnesota have shown us that there is still a lot of work to be done if we want our criminal justice system to reflect core American values like fairness, decency, and equal treatment under the law. Here in New York, Rikers Island is a powerful symbol of the failures of the criminal justice system.
In 2014, the Department of Justice released a report documenting that the New York City Department of Correction had systematically violated the civil rights of male teenagers at Rikers Island by failing to protect them from the rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force by correctional officers.
In a similar vein, eleven formerly incarcerated men and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, Preet Bharara, filed a class action lawsuit against the city, alleging horrific brutality by correctional officers at Rikers. The results of this case, Nunez v. City of New York, included the appointment of a federal monitor, a new policy restricting the use of force by guards against inmates, and the installation of thousands of surveillance cameras at the jail complex.
These investigations of Rikers Island have been corroborated by numerous New York City Council hearings and augmented by reporting from the New York Times, Associated Press, Marshall Project, and other outlets. Meaningful changes to the hiring and training of corrections officers is undoubtedly needed, but not the only area in need of reform.
As a facility and an Island, Rikers is quite literally decaying, exacerbating safety concerns for both corrections officers and the incarcerated. Its isolation away from the communities in which we live and work further removes individuals, both physically and psychologically, from the families and communities they call home.
At this point, there can be little argument that the conditions on Rikers Island fail to live up to our highest ideals. We can do better. We must do better.
Is it possible to imagine a state-of-the-art criminal justice system in New York City that does not rely on a de facto penal colony on the outskirts of town? What would it look like? And how might we get there?
The Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform was formed to explore these questions.
The Commission, which I chair, was convened by New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. While the Speaker was the impetus for its formation, the Commission is a fully independent body, predisposed to no particular outcome. We will not take a nickel from the government or any political entity. But we are taking input from anyone. We are committed to an open thought process where no ideas are immediately dismissed and all communities impacted have an opportunity to share experiences and possible solutions.
The Commission is comprised of more than two dozen leaders from a variety of backgrounds, including law enforcement, academia, advocacy groups, business, and those who have spent time behind bars. The membership of the Commission is diverse, but at our first meeting in April 2016 one thing became clear: we all share a fierce commitment to New York City and a desire to ensure that our justice system reflects our city’s values of decency, dignity, and equal treatment before the law.
Our mission is to create a blueprint for the future of criminal justice in New York City. In particular, we seek to answer three big questions:
Is It Possible to Further Reduce the Population on Rikers Island?
In assessing the many factors contributing to the current crisis at Rikers and other jail facilities in New York City, it is important to understand the real purpose of a jail, along with who is in jail and how they got there.
Jails are operated locally and are filled primarily with pretrial defendants, along with a small population of individuals convicted and sentenced to short-terms of incarceration. Prisons, on the other hand, are under the jurisdiction of the state or Federal government and hold convicted offenders with sentences typically in excess of one year.
With more than 88 percent of New York City’s jail population black or Latino, the criminal justice system disproportionately impacts communities of color. Additionally, more than 40 percent of inmates at Rikers have some mental health diagnosis, and 11 percent have a serious mental health diagnosis. Mental health issues in the female population at Rikers are even more pronounced — 70 percent of females on the Island have some mental health diagnosis.
Three out of four people in jail in New York City have not been found guilty of a crime. These are pretrial detainees being held in custody while their cases are pending. We know that many of these individuals are not threats to public safety. What they are is poor. As Human Rights Watch and others have documented, hundreds of inmates are detained on Rikers Island simply because they cannot afford bail. Indeed, many are being detained because they cannot post bail amounts of a few thousand dollars. Or less.
Kalief Browder was one such inmate. Arrested in 2010 for allegedly stealing a backpack, Browder could not post $3,500 bail and was sent to Rikers Island at the age of sixteen. He spent three years inside, enduring persistent violence and approximately two years of solitary confinement, during which he made repeated attempts to take his own life. His charges were ultimately dropped. But his experience on Rikers permanently shaped his life. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he committed suicide a few months after his release.
We cannot allow more tragedies like Kalief Browder.
We need to ensure that jail is reserved for those who are at high-risk of reoffending. A growing body of research concludes that putting most defendants in jail compromises public safety. Incarceration, even for just a few days, can actually increase the likelihood that many individuals will commit another crime once released. The Commission will be exploring possible policy and procedural changes to reduce the number of individuals held in detention and shorten the amount of time people remain on Rikers Island. This includes thinking about how we can reduce our current reliance on bail. It includes addressing case processing delays to ensure that the justice system moves as swiftly as possible. And it includes examining whether there is a need to expand alternative-to-incarceration programs, so that judges have meaningful options other than sending people to Rikers.
What Should the Jails of Tomorrow Look Like?
Rikers Island is a world apart.
There is no subway stop nearby. The Island is only accessible by a narrow bridge that is tucked away in a corner of Queens, well off the beaten path.
Rikers Island’s isolation alone exacerbates existing delays in the court system, as detainees must be transported to and from court hearings, a task that can take all day, further prolonging the process. And for the more than 1,600 people who visit inmates at Rikers Island each day, most spend the entire day simply accessing the island. Rikers remains inaccessible for most New Yorkers and requires significant planning, time, and energy to visit for just a few hours.
As a result, Rikers’ inmates are wholly disconnected from their loved ones and their communities, despite studies consistently showing recidivism can be reduced by encouraging inmates to maintain family and community relationships.
Yet as the Commission discovered during our recent visit to the Island, getting there is only the start of the challenge.
Arriving on Rikers Island, you quickly discover it is not a jail. Rather, it is a sprawling complex that includes ten separate jail facilities, along with a host of other associated services (food, laundry, etc). Some of these buildings are nearly ninety years old. Some are temporary facilities that somehow became permanent. But none were designed to accommodate current thinking about how to effectively manage jail populations. And none were designed to facilitate modern rehabilitation programs. Nor were any of the facilities designed to communicate dignity or respect to correctional officers, inmates, or visitors.
The bottom line, as multiple experts have testified to the Commission, is this: if you were building a jail system from scratch, there’s no way you would build something that looks like Rikers Island.
This is where the Commission comes in. We are asking what the jails of tomorrow should look like. How can we create a facility that ensures the safety of corrections officers and detainees? Should jail facilities be located far from the neighborhoods where most inmates reside and the courthouses to which inmates must be transported every single day? Are there lessons that New York City should be learning from other systems, either in the US or around the world? What kinds of services should be offered to jail inmates in an effort to help them get their lives back on track? How can the architecture of a facility help promote peaceful coexistence rather than exacerbate tensions?
In the months ahead, the Commission will be wrestling with these questions and more.
What Should Happen to Rikers Island?
What does the future hold for Rikers Island? If the Island is not a massive jail facility, what should it be?
Rikers Island is about six-tenths of a square mile, most of it landfill. Recent reports suggest that there may be serious environmental hazards on the Island.
More positively, Rikers is a waterfront property with spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline. If the 10 jails it houses were no longer in use, it would represent a rare commodity in a dense, heavily-developed city: a relatively blank canvas.
With the help of architects, environmentalists, city planners, land use experts, and others, our Commission will look at the potential and perils of Rikers as a development opportunity. This includes exploring a wide range of possible uses including housing, manufacturing, parks, entertainment, and transportation (among others).
How would all this be paid for? We will create a comprehensive cost analysis and fiscal strategy, outlining in broad strokes the investment of resources required as well the benefits that such an investment might reap.
While much of the media coverage of the justice system in New York focuses on the negative, the truth is that there a number of important reforms already starting to take hold. The use of solitary confinement has been reduced drastically. Misdemeanor arrests are down significantly, as are stop and frisks. Changes in the law and in policy have reduced penalties for minor offenses like marijuana possession. Mayor Bill de Blasio, the City Council of New York, the New York Police Department, and the city’s five elected prosecutors deserve credit for these improvements.
Our Commission seeks to build on the work that has already been put in place. In the coming months, we will be working with a wide range of stakeholders, including prosecutors, corrections officers, civil rights leaders, elected officials, community leaders, formerly incarcerated individuals, and many more to receive their perspective on how best to reform our current system. We will also be engaging you, the public, on how we can create a better, more just system for all. This outreach will form the basis for our analysis and inform our ultimate recommendations.
From the beginning, our goal above all else, has been to help rebuild a system that lives up to our highest ideals of justice, dignity, and humanity for all.
And with that, it’s time to get to work.