‘For decades, criminalized communities have been calling on elected leaders to fund our schools, our parks, our hospitals, our community centers, our access to stable homes and more.’

Adi Talwar

The view of Rikers from the Bronx

This week, after a year-long delay, a commission to make recommendations on reinvestment in communities impacted by Rikers Island will convene for its first meeting. The work of this commission is essential and long overdue. Mass incarceration will not end in New York City without mass investments into impacted communities. This is where social justice and economic justice intersect. Directly impacted people identified this decades ago in order to tackle the root causes of incarceration.

Between 1979 and 1980, incarcerated men at Green Haven Correctional Facility conducted research that came to be known as the Seven Neighborhood Study. It revealed that over 75 percent of New York State’s prison population came from seven New York City neighborhoods (the South Bronx, Harlem, Lower East Side, Brownsville, Bedford-Stuyvesant, East New York, South Jamaica). These communities have been historically deprived of resources and then criminalized in their struggle to survive. Today, about 40,000 New Yorkers every year cycle through Rikers from these very same neighborhoods.

In March of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic not only put New York City on halt but it revealed what Black and Brown communities already knew. In what may be the wealthiest city in the world, we have some of the grossest racial and class disparities in health care, housing, and public safety. New York City was the epicenter of America’s COVID-19 crisis. Poor and working class communities of color, including the seven neighborhoods, were hit terribly hard by the pandemic. A place where social distancing and staying healthy was nearly impossible even before the threat of a pandemic, Rikers Island has become the epicenter of the epicenter of COVID-19. It is also ground zero for the intersectional injustice exacerbated by our current public health crisis.

Many New Yorkers don’t know that on Oct. 17, 2019, the New York City Council passed what is now Local Law 193, sponsored by Council Member Stephen Levin, to establish a commission on community investment along with their vote to close Rikers. This was a response to advocates’ calls to not only move forward with the closure of Rikers Island but to simultaneously redistribute resources into impacted communities—to repair the harms of mass incarceration, and usher in a new approach to public safety. Also in response to the work of advocates, at least half of the appointees are people who will bring their lived experience of incarceration to this historic commission. 

According to Local Law 193, every city agency impacted by this law will be required to facilitate this endeavor with the “appropriate staff and resources to support the work of such agency related to the commission.” The commission will also engage people impacted by criminalization and incarceration, community based organizations, and service providers in identifying immediate and long term investment needs. Thereafter, the commission will submit its report with recommendations. “Within 60 days after publication of the commission’s report,” the law states, “the mayor of the city of New York shall publish a response to each recommendation published by the commission.”

Due to its delayed start, the commission—which was initially supposed to convene by April of last year—will issue its first set of recommendations at the end of 2021. But there is no need to wait until then to start on this realignment of resources to reckon with the legacy of Rikers.

For decades, criminalized communities have been calling on elected leaders to fund our schools, our parks, our hospitals, our community centers, our access to stable homes and more. Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council can start in this budget cycle, by finally moving substantial resources away from systems of punishment toward systems of support. For all of those aspiring to be New York City’s next elected leaders—you must commit to fully supporting the work of this commission and following through on its recommendations. Our communities have already been waiting too long for the investments we deserve.

Darren Mack is a survivor of Rikers, a co-director of Freedom Agenda, and member of the commission to make recommendations on reinvestment in communities impacted by Rikers Island.

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