As the city embarks on the public review and land-use approval process for a new jail system that will eventually replace the outdated facilities on Rikers Island, New Yorkers have an unprecedented opportunity as a city to a take major step forward to creating a humane, community-based correctional system and ending mass incarceration.
It’s time for New York to lose the distinction of operating the second-largest penal colony in the world. We don’t want a jail that operates in the shadows, on an inaccessible island, foisting fear, violence and trauma on some of the most vulnerable segments of society, as well as on correction officers.
Rikers Island is an outdated, inhumane and violent massive jail complex that has been ruining lives since the 1930s. At The Fortune Society, we are witnesses to this damage. We see the trauma inflicted on the thousands of formerly incarcerated people who walk through our doors each year. We also see it in our work on Rikers Island, in person, every day.
Closing Rikers is much more than shuttering an isolated facility. There’s a deeper purpose. It puts into action an important shift in policy that will bring us a step closer to ending mass incarceration and treating substance use disorder and mental illness with health-based solutions, and not incarceration. Like radioactive fallout, the effects of the Rockefeller drug laws and the wholesale closing of mental health facilities still persist. People who should be treated for these disorders are being locked up on Rikers Island, each at a cost of $828 per day. Perhaps even worse, people awaiting court dates are being detained simply because they cannot afford bail.
The de Blasio administration is working hard to close Rikers, and my organization is proud to be part of this effort. New York already is a model for justice reform. We have achieved a 30 percent reduction in the Rikers population over the past several years, while simultaneously bringing down the crime rate. The goal of reducing populations in city jails to 5,000 is laudable, but it’s not enough. Locking up even fewer than 3,500 is attainable. And, if done the right way, through new arrest policies and bail reform, it will not impact our position as the safest city in America.
As we enter the public land-use approval process, New Yorkers will get a chance to look inside Rikers. City residents, political leaders and government officials will find themselves faced with one of the most challenging issues in the pursuit of reducing mass incarceration – where the new jails will be sited.
While the current plan to close Rikers and build smaller, community-based jails is not perfect, we cannot let minor flaws get in the way of doing what is right and good.
Closing Rikers will improve the administration of justice. Those charged with crimes will be closer to courts, and their attorneys will have better and faster access to them. It is also the smart and humane thing to do because it will reduce the detention of people with serious mental health and substance use disorders and offer them therapeutic treatment that will help them break the cycle of arrest and incarceration.
Closing Rikers will help incarcerated people with the transition home. Those charged with crimes will be closer to their families and other support systems — strengthening the reentry process.
An impartial and fair assessment of this process can lead to only one conclusion: Closing Rikers will lead to a more just New York; it will create more vibrant and attractive communities; and it will save thousands of New Yorkers from the nightmare that too many New Yorker have been forced to live through.
JoAnne Page is the president & CEO of the Fortune Society