Lessons From Rikers Island

The jail is a microcosm of everything wrong with America’s criminal-justice system—but may also offer a model for how it can be righted.

Seth Wenig / AP

About 18 months ago, there seemed to be a growing national consensus about the imperative of criminal-justice reform. There was rare bipartisan agreement on the scale and scope of the challenges America’s incarceration crisis presents. While it seems that federal momentum for reform has slowed—if not reversed, as of late—it’s still possible to take meaningful steps toward justice locally.

Several weeks ago, the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform—of which I was a member—recommended the closure of Rikers Island, the 8,000-person jail in the East River of New York. While the decision made New York City headlines, the issue is much larger. Rikers Island is actually a microcosm of everything wrong with America’s criminal-justice system, and may also offer a model for how it can be righted.

Jails like Rikers—and the broken systems of which they are part—perpetuate inequality and injustice. For example, the current cash-bail system disproportionately punishes poor people, who are consigned to spend weeks and sometimes years in jail when they lack the necessary $500 or less to make bail. In some cases, for-profit bail bond companies exploit the desperation of poor families; in many others, people who can’t pay go straight to jail, which in New York City costs $247,000 per person, annually.

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.

Finally, while the Commission’s proposal was championed by the mayor and city council speaker, neither is likely to remain in office through the entire decade-long closure process. Shuttering Rikers—like so many long-term infrastructure projects—will need political courage and consistent support over the next decade in order for the plan to succeed.

Still, the recent announcement by New York’s mayor and governor that Rikers should be closed is an important watershed in the larger movement to rethink how American society uses incarceration.

Beyond closing Rikers, broader change will require being more judicious in the use of jail and prison: diverting low-level offenders away from traditional prosecution, reforming the pretrial system, eliminating backlogs and case processing delays, and prioritizing meaningful sentences. These steps, among others, can restore justice to the criminal-justice system, and dignity to those unfairly affected by it.

America’s national incarceration crisis is a violation of human rights. It’s not hard to imagine a museum of truth and reconciliation on Rikers Island sometime in the future, a reminder of the injustice so many endure today. Before that museum can exist, however, Americans must continue to fight for justice wherever we can. I am proud that in New York City, we are starting with Rikers Island.