Mass Incarceration

The Case to Close Rikers

By Jessica Persaud on October, 13 2021

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Jessica Persaud

Jessica Persaud is the Director of Policy at Common Justice.

For far too long, the atrocities at Rikers Island Jail have gone unaddressed. We must decarcerate and close it.

Eerily close to the 50th anniversary of the Attica riots, Rikers Island has devolved into utter chaos, as history seems to repeat itself. In early September, we saw the State’s highest public officials reflect on what has become known as the “worst prison uprising in U.S. history.” There is almost always remorse for the lives lost, however, what also needs to be recognized is that Attica was the most desperate demand for better living conditions, and an end to overcrowding and repressive discipline in correctional facilities. Still, despite this history, we are witnessing a similar humanitarian crisis unfolding in one of the largest and most notoriously violent and corrupt jail complexes in the United States – Rikers Island Jail.

The history of Rikers Island begins with origins in slavery and continues with frequent accounts of brutality and despicable conditions over the past several decades. In 2016, the #CloseRikers campaign was formed to put an end to the violence and abuse within Rikers Island by advocating to close the jail complex for good. In response to these efforts, in 2019, City Council passed an $8M comprehensive plan to close the Rikers Island complex and replace it with four smaller jails by 2026. The plan has been criticized by advocates who prefer complete decarceration, but even in its current iteration, it is not enough to address the immediate issues that have come to light in 2021.

In 2020, Steve J. Martin, a federal monitor hired to monitor the progress in DOC facilities pursuant to the Nunez settlement, issued his eleventh report foreshadowing the humanitarian crisis that is present on Rikers Island today. The 342 page report warned of a “pervasive level of disorder and chaos” and “unreasonably high” levels of violence in the jail complex. In August 2021, he filed an updated letter detailing deteriorating conditions, where violence had significantly increased. Martin highlighted staff shortages as being a primary factor in the worsening conditions, but that, compounded with the existing violence in the facilities and the ongoing global pandemic of COVID-19, created an irreparable environment for chaos.

A month later, on September 10th, Chief Medical Officer, Ross MacDonald, MD released a haunting letter urging assistance for the “emergency situation” unfolding on Rikers Island. In the letter, Dr. MacDonald references Martin’s 2020 report to draw a distinction between the “longstanding dysfunction of Rikers” that continues to develop over the years, and the current “worsening emergency” that has presented itself over the past year in 2021. He describes the events that took place throughout the year as a “collapse in basic jail operations.” Dr. MacDonald also states that decarceration efforts that could be utilized to help control this crisis and the continuous spread of COVID-19, which has claimed many of the lives of 12 individuals who have died in DOC custody this year, have not been meaningfully pursued since 2020. This letter ultimately sparked controversy in the news and on Twitter bringing attention to the need for officials to visit the Island.

After attempts to restrict visits to the jail complex, State Legislators finally visited Rikers Island on September 13th, where they observed the deplorable conditions and witnessed an attempted suicide by one of the incarcerated persons. Both New York State Legislators who represent Rikers Island, Alessandra Biaggi (SD-34) and Kenny Burgos (AD-85), and other prominent members of the NYS Legislature and the U.S. Congress have called for the immediate decarceration of Rikers.

After the Legislators’ visit, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio signed an emergency order to execute the “Emergency Rikers Relief Plan,” a five-point plan to address the crisis on Rikers Island. The plan has been criticized by many public officials and advocates as empty and inefficient to address the actual conditions deteriorating on the Island. This was also confirmed following his visit to Rikers Island on September 27th, where he stated that he would not be releasing anyone who “pose[s] a safety risk.” He also informed reporters that he did not speak to any correctional officers or incarcerated persons during his visit because “that was not the mission,” only highlighting his disconnect from, and dismissal of, what is occurring.

Following the release of the “Emergency Rikers Relief Plan,” Governor Kathy Hochul signed the Less is More Act into law. This law will limit the use of incarceration as punishment for technical, non-criminal, parole violations. Since the law does not take effect until March 2022, Governor Hochul used her Executive authority to order the release of 191 individuals jailed on technical parole violations to address the immediate issue of overcrowding the jails. As of September 28th, 125 individuals have been transferred from Rikers to State Facilities and 185 have been released. Governor Hochul also signed an Executive Order expanding remote court hearings to expedite proceedings of people being held on Rikers Island. We applaud the Governor’s efforts in addressing this ongoing issue, but without consistent and continuous action and commitment to decarceration efforts at both the State and Local level, this crisis will continue.  

At the City level, the Early Release 6A Program–that was properly utilized for early release during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to reduce the jail population by 75% and minimize the deaths caused by COVID-19–should be meaningfully utilized to decrease the population at Rikers to minimize the growing number of deaths. In the Courts, District Attorneys, judges, and prosecutors must stop requesting and granting cash bail, which effectively conditions release on an individual’s ability to pay. At the State level, decarceration efforts, like the signing of the Less is More Act, must continue and not be deterred by the same fear mongering and law-enforcement-led messaging in the media that was used to rollback bail reform.

To date, 12 people have died in New York Department of Correction custody, 11 on Rikers Island, 5 by suicide. We cannot afford another death on Rikers Island. This situation requires swift and immediate attention for Rikers’ incarcerated population and staff, but also a clear and dedicated effort to long lasting change in our criminal justice and carceral system, as a whole. We should not wait another 50 years to listen to the demands of our incarcerated population.

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