After years of abhorrent conditions and abuses, New York City is finally shutting down the notoriously troubled Rikers Island jail.
“New York City will close the Rikers Island jail facility,” Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last year. “It will take many years. It will take many tough decisions along the way. But it will happen.”
On Wednesday, de Blasio unveiled what will replace Rikers: four jails spread across the city, which de Blasio said will be smaller and safer than the current Rikers facility. This is close to what a commission previously recommended — that the single jail be broken up into smaller jails located in each of the city’s five boroughs.
Here is where the four sites will be located, according to local reporter Grace Rauh:
Manhattan Detention Center, 125 White Street, Manhattan, 10013
Brooklyn Detention Center, 275 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, 11201
Queens Detention Center, 126-01 82nd Avenue, Kew Gardens, 11415
NYPD Tow Pound, 320 Concord Avenue, Bronx, 10454
De Blasio was previously skeptical of shutting down Rikers, but it seems public pressure to do something about the jail pushed him to change his mind.
Rikers Island is notoriously awful
Rikers Island has earned a national reputation for its terrible conditions, with horror stories regularly coming out.
One such story was that of Kalief Browder, who killed himself in 2015, after his release. He spent three years in the facility even though he was never convicted of the robbery he was wrongly accused of at the age of 16. He said he spent more than 400 days in solitary confinement, and he attempted suicide at least six times while at the jail. “I didn’t get to go to prom, graduation, nothing,” Browder told New York City’s ABC7. “I’m never going to get those years back. Never.”
A New York Times article headlined “Rikers: Where Mental Illness Meets Brutality in Jail” detailed several other examples of abuse at the jail. In one case, officers reacted to an inmate’s suicide attempt by beating him:
After being arrested on a misdemeanor charge following a family dispute last year, Jose Bautista was unable to post $250 bail and ended up in a jail cell on Rikers Island.
A few days later, he tore his underwear, looped it around his neck and tried to hang himself from the cell’s highest bar. Four correction officers rushed in and cut him down. But instead of notifying medical personnel, they handcuffed Mr. Bautista, forced him to lie face down on the cell floor and began punching him with such force, according to New York City investigators, that he suffered a perforated bowel and needed emergency surgery.
De Blasio and other city officials had worked to try to fix the jail facility. But the pace of change was slow, and the jail could never shake its reputation as a place of historical brutality. Now Rikers Island is closing down, affecting the roughly 9,000 inmates held there on a daily basis.
Rikers Island’s end is a sign of where the country is going on criminal justice issues
Beyond New York City, the shutdown is emblematic of the kind of criminal justice reform that’s taking shape across the country. Over the past few years, dozens of states have pursued criminal justice reforms, typically focused on low-level drug and property offenses, in an attempt to cut down their massive prison populations.
The reforms are meant to address a serious issue: Although the US makes up about 4 percent of the world's population, it accounts for 22 percent of the world’s prison population — putting it out of step not just with its developed peers in Europe but also with authoritarian nations like Cuba, Russia, and China.
But through reforms, the US prison population began to drop for the first time in 2010.
Criminal justice reformers argue that much work remains to be done, particularly since reform efforts still haven’t targeted the violent offenders that make up a bulk of the US prison population. The US, after all, still locks up more people than any other nation in the world.
But the demise of Rikers Island indicates that something really is changing in America’s criminal justice system. That’s something to celebrate for reformers.
For more about mass incarceration, read Vox’s explainer.