The vote by the New York City Council to approve a plan to close Rikers Island by building four local jails in the boroughs close to the courts and the communities from which detainees come is as welcome as it is long overdue. Over four decades ago I was the head of the Prisoners’ Rights Project of the NYC Legal Aid Society. We were a small office charged with the task of using our legal skills to address appalling conditions of confinement in New York City Jails and to attempt to bring the rule of law to the operation of our penal institutions. The constitution of our country guarantees that people held in penal facilities are entitled to be held in conditions that do not threaten their safety and that do not destroy their lives. Sadly, that was not the case in New York then and hasn’t been for many years since.
In our work, we saw Rikers Island up close and personal. We saw a remote place where horrible things happened to people who are held there as well as people who work there. Rikers is poorly designed, expensive to operate, distant from courts, attorneys, families, and communities to which the overwhelming number of people who are held there will inevitably return. There is a culture on that island of brutality, meanness, and violence.
Rikers harms not only the people who go there; it harms the millions who don’t. It does nothing to uplift anyone or to make us safer. What we saw is a stain on a great city. So Rikers must be closed. But accomplishing that as is often the case when one is trying to do the right thing is not easy. But it is worth the effort. That is why the vote by the New York City Council to close this horrible place is so welcome. When the day comes that Rikers is finally shuttered, New York City will be a better city; it will be a safer city;it will be an American city that we can take pride in.