NYAPRS Note: Last week the New York Times issued this powerful editorial discussing the very real merits of closing Rikers Island. Although a commission to examine New York City’s criminal justice system was recently announced, the purpose of which is to determine whether Rikers can reasonably be shut down for good, the Times rightly sees the closure as long overdue. Indeed, the paper believes that the island “should be given back to the sea gulls, or used for affordable housing, or an extension of La Guardia Airport, or any number of other conceivable, nontoxic purposes.”
Imagining a Rikers Island With No Jail
By the New York Times Editorial Board February 24, 2016
Any serious effort to repair criminal justice in New York City must do something about Rikers Island, the jail complex in the East River where justice goes to die, or at least be severely beaten.
The City Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, acknowledged this in her State of the City address this month, when she announced that the state’s former chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, would lead a commission to comprehensively examine the city’s criminal justice system. Its mission will be to reduce the jail population, now at about 10,000, enough to make it possible to consider shutting Rikers down for good.
Mr. Lippman is newly retired from the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, after a distinguished career advancing justice for the poor. His involvement lends credibility to Ms. Mark-Viverito’s intriguing proposal. Fixing Rikers has been talked about, fruitlessly, for years. Studies have been commissioned, consultants paid, lawsuits filed. Mr. Lippman, now with Latham & Watkins, says he will lead an open-minded investigation, but it’s hard to imagine a conclusion more foregone: The sensible thing to do with Rikers is to close it.
The Times has reported for years on the savagery there. The Justice Department has investigated its corrupted, poisoned culture. The department’s report on the abuse of teenage inmates is horrific reading. In a long history of often-fatal violence, incompetence and neglect, one tragic case stands out: that of Kalief Browder, who was 16 when he was taken to Rikers, accused of stealing a backpack. Because his mother could not make bail, he spent three years there, including about two in solitary confinement. He was assaulted by a guard and beaten by inmates. He tried repeatedly to kill himself, and after his release he succeeded. He was 22 years old.
Even if its inmates were not brutalized, its guards not thuggish, its corridors not afflicted by gangs, weapons and drugs, Rikers would still be a bad idea. It harks back to a time when prisoners were shipped out of sight. The costs and inconvenience to the city, which spends $25 million a year just to transport inmates, and to family members, who lose a day’s work to get there and back, argue powerfully for neighborhood-based alternatives.
Mr. Lippman promises that the commission will be driven by data, not politics, and have broad-based representation, including prosecutors, the defense bar, the Police Department, correction officers, prison-reform advocates and former inmates. “We will look comprehensively at the Rikers situation,” he said, “and we’ll connect it to things: reducing pretrial detention, alternatives to incarceration, reforming the summons process, trying to immediately reduce certain populations: women, the mentally disturbed, juveniles. And we’ll look at the community-based justice options.”
The difficulties are obvious. Many might agree that it’s impossible to reform Rikers, but not want a jail next door. Even if the Rikers population is halved, that means placing thousands of inmate beds somewhere else in the city. Even in an era of falling crime, this is likely to meet with resistance. Mr. Lippman will have to combine political shrewdness and toughness to deal with the correction officers and their truculent union boss, Norman Seabrook, who called closing Rikers a “fantasy.”
It’s good that the City Council under Ms. Mark-Viverito and the New York Police Department under Commissioner William Bratton have already made progress on an ambitious array of criminal justice and policing reforms that blunt the ill effects of Rikers by keeping low-level offenders away from it. Mr. Lippman’s commission should move things further while building support across the city for housing a smaller inmate population locally.
“Rikers stands for everything that’s miserable about the criminal justice system,” Mr. Lippman said. “By conquering Rikers, in a politically astute, smart, credible way — this is the ultimate challenge, to be able to take on something which is so widely viewed as the heart of all of our problems.”
As for the island, it should be given back to the sea gulls, or used for affordable housing, or an extension of La Guardia Airport, or any number of other conceivable, nontoxic purposes. And once the poison is removed, the city could rename it Browder’s Island, for young Kalief, whose suffering there has come to symbolize all that went so horribly wrong there for so many years.