Opinion: Close Rikers now

Amid an alarming rise in suicides, neglect and unlivable conditions, it is incumbent upon Mayor Bill de Blasio to shut down Rikers Island jail complex and stop wasting taxpayer money on pointless reforms.

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Sam Clegg

A woman holds a sign demanding the closure of the Rikers Island jail. Activists are criticizing the rising death toll and inhumane living conditions, and New York City has pledged to close Rikers Island in 2027. (Photo by Sam Clegg)

By Asha Ramachandran, Opinion Editor

After touring Rikers Island on Monday, Sept. 27, Mayor Bill de Blasio noted the city’s progress in improving the jail. However, he failed to mention the deadly overcrowding, maggot and roach infestations, unsanitary conditions, and multiple suicides and deaths

Incarcerated people, community organizers, public defenders and elected officials have been advocating for the city to take action as conditions worsen. The city’s response to activists’ demands and its current proposals are inadequate. Intending to shut down Rikers in 2027 is not good enough the scale of the crisis warrants immediate closure of the jail.

In his visit to Rikers, de Blasio did not speak to a single incarcerated person, nor did he tour the segregated intake areas which have been described as decrepit, unsanitary and dangerous. If he had, he might have heard about the institutional neglect or seen the overcrowding, infestations, and the feces and urine on the ground. These conditions led to the recent death of Isa Abdul-Karim, who spent 10 days without medical attention after contracting COVID-19. 12 elected officials who visited the correctional facility on Sept. 13 witnessed an attempted suicide, lack of food and water, medical negligence and multiple other human rights violations against individuals entrusted under the state’s care. 

The vast majority of people incarcerated in Rikers Island are pretrial defendants. The consequences of pretrial detention in the United States are well documented, including 13% higher rates of conviction and harsher sentences compared to pretrial release. The effectiveness of pretrial detention in improving court appearance rates has also been called into question; other alternatives maintain court appearance rates and public safety while also supporting defendants with resources and rehabilitative services. New York City’s pretrial detention practices are not effective and endanger the lives of incarcerated people, especially those detained at Rikers Island. 

De Blasio and the Department of Corrections have suggested hiring more correctional officers as a potential fix given alleged understaffing issues. But patterns of frequent abuse, excessive force and neglect indicate that a larger staff won’t adequately address changing a sustained culture of punishment and violence towards incarcerated people. Pouring more money into hiring correctional officers and marginally improving conditions only prolongs the violence that is endemic to Rikers as an institution. De Blasio could be using taxpayer money for rehabilitative services and decarceration but is instead focused on the wrong solutions. 

Although the city has pledged to eventually close Rikers Island, that closure needs to happen now so we can invest in effective alternatives. The ongoing punishment, neglect and abuse is not keeping New Yorkers safe. Being accused or convicted of a crime does not justify the conditions of detention at Rikers. Incarceration at Rikers Island has effectively become a death sentence and too many people have already lost their lives for the city to delay changes any longer.

Contact Asha Ramachandran at [email protected]