As a result of this broken bail system, four out of five people jailed at Rikers are presumptively innocent people awaiting trials in a backlogged court system that sometimes takes years to adjudicate cases. At the same time, such inequality crosses race as well as class lines, partly because people of color are also less likely to be able to afford bail. The Vera Institute of Justice found that race negatively impacted people of color in Manhattan in setting bail, negotiating a plea deal, and level of sentencing. As a result, 55 percent of people jailed at Rikers are African American, and 34 percent are Latino.
Poverty and institutional racism make it more likely that a person will head to Rikers. Once there, the effects of incarceration are profound. As the Rikers Commission found: “Individuals who go into jail with problems—substance abuse, mental health disorders, lack of education, etc.—tend to come out with those problems exacerbated.”
And for each of these problems, there are more questions.
What does it say that the Rikers Island jail is the biggest de facto provider of mental-health services in New York City—the largest metropolis in a powerful, prosperous nation?
How can Americans change racialized notions of substance abuse that predispose us to give opioid addicts empathy and crack addicts mandatory-minimum sentences?
While any one of these issues is alarming, when combined, the results are too often tragic. Look no further than the case of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old boy arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack who spent over a thousand days at Rikers, waiting for trial while asserting his innocence. He served nearly two years in solitary confinement, attempted suicide more than once after suffering beatings from inmates and guards alike. Two years after his release from Rikers, the charges against him dropped, Browder struggled to recover from his mistreatment, and took his own life.
Browder’s devastating story is just one of many. The grave circumstances people face at Rikers are powerfully depicted in Bill Moyers’s new documentary, “Rikers: An American Jail.” This film is told exclusively from the perspective of former and current inmates who have endured its ingrained culture of violence.
Of course, the closure of Rikers comes with legitimate concerns. First, though the Commission recommended replacing Rikers with smaller jails in each of the five boroughs, these new facilities face resistance from their prospective neighbors. Despite New York’s reputation as a progressive city, there already has been strong opposition to Mayor de Blasio’s recent efforts to zone affordable housing. Just imagine how these communities might greet a proposal for a jail.
Second, shrinking the jail population further will be expensive. Funds to hire new personnel in courts and other justice systems to speed up case processing—along with other costs—are estimated to run up to $1 billion over 10 years.