The Rikers Island jail complex is notorious worldwide for its pervasive cycles of violence and abuse among those incarcerated, staff, volunteers and visitors — the causes of which are numerous and intractable. These subhuman conditions are further reflected by the rapidly deteriorating structure and lack of basic services which are continually perpetuated by the physical isolation of the facilities. This separation only serves to create barriers between incarcerated people and the support systems they require to successfully navigate and surmount the justice system.
For these reasons, the city has rightfully committed to closing Rikers once and for all. We all dream of a world in which jails do not exist, but we must also be realistic and intentional about the need for new facilities and their placement within the five boroughs. Because of our continued efforts to decarcerate, New York City is now a national leader on alternatives to jail and reducing incarceration rates. Additionally, new laws in Albany on bail, discovery, and speedy trial will continue to reduce the number of pretrial detainees by at least 2,900 people. But this is not enough to bring us to a population of zero. And while we continue to fight battles to decrease the jail population, Rikers Island must be closed immediately.
There are advocates who are staunchly opposed to building new facilities. While these advocates and I share many of the same values and goals, there is only one realistic and truly just pathway forward — the building of borough-based jails. The notion that ‘if we build more beds they will be filled’ blatantly ignores that the current facilities on Rikers Island have a far greater capacity than all of the borough-based designs combined. We cannot afford to wait. Every day Rikers Island continues to operate is a stain on the collective conscience of our city.
With the closing of Rikers, we now have the opportunity to build facilities that can, by design, not only eliminate the need for incarceration entirely, but in the interim, serve as an incentive to keep jail populations at historic lows. Borough-based facilities is our best pathway forward because they reflect our values and offer the most holistic reforms to our criminal justice system in New York City.
The physical design of these facilities is critical to accomplishing this goal. Just as the physical structure of Rikers has contributed to more violence, intentional design features can instead honor dignity, increase rehabilitation and ultimately improve public safety. There must be a prioritization of designing spaces that can support robust programming and services, such as counseling groups, education and vocational programming, family meetings, recreation, and spiritual guidance. This includes creating spaces for medical, mental health, and dependency treatment including prenatal and maternity care and gender-affirming treatment for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals.
These facilities should also be trauma-informed and have the least restrictive conditions possible. There is a strong body of research connecting one’s physical environment to their emotional and psychological well-being, mood and behavior. Access to natural light, outdoor areas and ample communal spaces are key components of this practice and would further serve to enhance the success of these new facilities.
The designs should also be created with gender-responsive principles in mind. Rikers was designed for men and as evidenced by current practices, one size does not fit all. It is essential to create living spaces that are separate, private and clean and consider the needs of specific populations. For example, the women’s facility should have an on-site nursery with a minimum of 16 beds so women can remain and bond with their newborns, as well as spaces where older children can stay overnight. Not only does this design allow for better experiences, but it also reinforces positive outcomes such as maintaining family relationships, which ultimately strengthens communities.
We must continue to push for better and more alternatives to incarceration, decriminalization of low-level offenses, eliminating jail for technical violations of parole among a range of needed reforms. However, at this moment, the strongest measure we can take to decarcerate New York City is to close Rikers Island and build smaller, safer, borough-based facilities.
Vivian Nixon is the Executive Director of College & Community Fellowship, a non-profit that partners with women with criminal convictions to help them earn their college degrees so that they, their families, and their communities can thrive. You can follow her on Twitter @Vivian_Nixon_WW