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.
In a recent article in the Daily News, The Prisoners We Should Put on Rikers, Pace Law Professor and nationally recognized expert on prisoners’ rights Michael B. Mushlin writes that although Mayor de Blasio’s announcement endorsing the recommendation of an independent commission to close the Rikers Island jail complex is a step in the right direction, the better solution might be to keep Rikers operational to house prisoners from the five boroughs who would otherwise be sent upstate.
Prof. Mushlin points out:
For example, 58% of incarcerated individuals from the city’s metropolitan region are in prisons more than 200 miles from their homes. And remarkably, 27% of the entire state prison population is more than 300 miles from the county of commitment.
The location of New York prisons so far away makes maintaining meaningful family ties almost impossible. These ties are strongly associated with successful reintegration, lower recidivism rates and improved behavior while incarcerated.
In a Netflix original documentary titled 13TH, to signify the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, scholars, activists and politicians discuss and analyze the criminalization of African Americans in the United States. This thought-provoking film argues that the mass incarceration of African Americans across the United States is in fact an extension of slavery. See NPR Review. The filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s website features the documentary’s official trailer along with a list of reviews from variety of newspapers. Check it out!
On January 23, 2017, ACLU filed a class action suit against Wisconsin officials alleging severe human and children’s rights abuses. The complaint’s introduction states:
The State of Wisconsin operates the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and the Copper Lake School for Girls, which incarcerate approximately 150-200 youth who are as young as 14 years old, in remote northern Wisconsin. The State routinely subjects these youth to unlawful solitary confinement, mechanical restraints and pepper spraying. Prior to state and federal raids on the facility at the end of 2015, staff also regularly physically abused youth in the facility. Currently, Wisconsin’s juvenile corrections officials lock up approximately 15 to 20% percent or more of the facilities’ young residents in solitary confinement cells for 22 or 23 hours per day. Many of these children are forced to spend their only free hour of time per day outside of a solitary confinement cell in handcuffs and chained to a table. Officers also repeatedly and excessively use Bear Mace and other pepper sprays against the youth, causing them excruciating pain and impairing their breathing. These practices constitute serious violations of the children’s constitutional rights, including their rights to substantive due process, as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and their right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, as guaranteed by the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
J.J. et al. v. Litscher et al., No. 3:17-cv-00047 (W. D. Wis. Jan 23, 2017) (Complaint).