When Mayor de Blasio first took office, in my first interaction with him, I warned him that Riker’s was a ticking time bomb. Sure enough, the New York Times expose, followed by the Justice Department investigation, found persistent inhumane conditions.
To his credit, the mayor has done significant work to improve conditions on the Island, by first bringing in a commissioner truly dedicated to change and later creating new units and programming and plans for change on the island. However, bandages will only do so much for an open wound.
That brokenness goes beyond the ancient infrastructure, the problematic and abusive bad apples among the correction officers, and the gangs and violence. As has been written about, 85 percent of those housed on the island are actually pre-trial detainees- people who have not yet been convicted of any crime. Being held in conditions similar to those that ultimately led to the tragic suicide of Kalif Browder is an affront to our notion of justice in this country.
Our justice system is founded in the belief that people are innocent until proven guilty. The practice in this city of whisking people accused of a crime off to an island that is far from their community support system, far from their lawyers and difficult to access (do you know where Riker’s actually is? In the East River by the La Guardia airport runway) is an atrocity.
If we truly want to reform our criminal justice system, we can’t hide it on an island in a distant bay. We need regular reminders that it is a part of our lives. Keeping pre-trial detainees in borough jails would improve the justice system in this city immensely. It would keep the accused closer to their support networks and families, decreasing the negative effects of entering the criminal justice system pre-trial. It would allow better contact between the accused and their attorneys.
It would also significantly decrease the costs of transporting people between Rikers Island and court. There would be more pressure on the city to move those cases to trial in a timely manner and not put so many pretrial detainees in jail in the first place. And most immediately, it would significantly decrease the population on Rikers Island, making improvement of conditions an obtainable reality.
The city has the power to do this. If the mayor wants to end the tale of two cities, making this change at Riker’s would be an enormous step in that direction.
Daniel J. O’Donnell, a Democrat, is the assemblymember for the 69th district and the chair of the Standing Committee on Correction.