It is one of those places that people know only as a horrific legend, unless they have a reason to be there.
After 85 years, Rikers Island — and its stories of abuse, murder, inedible food and unafraid rats — is on its way to being no more. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Friday that he has begun a long, drawn-out process to close the notorious campus of prisons that sits near LaGuardia International Airport. It will probably take up to 10 years before the vast complex is completely eliminated and prisoners shuttled off to other facilities.
“New York City has always been better than Rikers Island,” De Blasio said. “I am proud to chart a course for our city that lives up to this reality.”
Complaints about conditions have plagued Rikers for decades, but have become louder after the June 2015 suicide of Kalief Browder, a teen whose case fell through the cracks and who spent three years at the complex for allegedly stealing a backpack, though he never stood trial and was never found guilty. Browder’s case drew even more attention after this year’s series documentary on his case.
Glenn Martin, a former Rikers inmate who has crusaded for closing of the 15-jail, 10,000 inmate complex, applauded the move Friday. Martin, who spent time at Rikers following a 1995 conviction for the armed robbery of a jewelry store, is cofounder of the year-old CloseRikers campaign. He has complained that the complex’s isolation on an island between the Bronx and Queens helps fuel the destructive atmosphere and has advocated for smaller facilities spread out throughout the city. Martin is featured in the 2016 documentary “13th" that likens incarceration to slavery.
“Today we made a step in the right direction toward safety and justice of all New Yorkers, especially those who have been harmed by Rikers Island,” Martin said in a statement. “For too long, New Yorkers – especially poor people of color – have languished in this grist mill, where human rights abuses are routine. Countless failed attempts at incremental reform have proven that the only viable solution is to close Rikers . . . As someone who served time at Rikers and who has a brother suffering there now, today’s news is especially meaningful to me.”
The criminal justice advocacy community had watched the campaign to close the facility with interest, but published analyses predicted de Blasio would never agree to close Rikers because of politics and because of city residents who complained that they did not want smaller parts of the jail complex distributed to their neighborhoods.
Rikers, opened in 1932, is a 413-acre complex on the East River. It is one of the world’s largest corrections and mental institutions and has been called the world's largest penal colony. In 2013, Mother Jones magazine declared it one of the 10 worst correctional facilities in the country.
Its more notable inmates include David Berkowitz, also known as the “Son of Sam,” who was convicted of eight fatal shootings that took place in the summer of 1976, the late rapper Tupac Shakur, late Sex Pistols musician Sid Vicious, arrested for the murder of girlfriend Nancy Spungen, and Mark David Chapman, convicted in the murder of the Beatles' John Lennon.
Over the years, the stories about Rikers have caught headlines across the country. In 1990, emergency medical service workers reported treating 162 wounded inmates and guards at eight hospitals after guards allegedly lined inmates up against a wall and beat them with nightsticks to beat back a disturbance. That happened a month after 66 officers and inmates were hurt in a melee. In 2015, 19 inmates were sickened by meatloaf that lab tests determined had rat poison in it.
In 2016, a former corrections officer was convicted of kicking to death an inmate who suffered from heart disease, diabetes and end-stage renal disease, and then trying to cover it up. Former inmates have spoken of rats and roaches competing with them for floor space. According to Martin, what casts the largest pall over Rikers is that inmates have nothing to do all day. Many have complained of a sewer-like stench or indoor temperatures in the 100s. One former inmate told Grist.com of trying to commit suicide multiple times - by drowning herself in a toilet bowl, and swallowing Nair - to escape.
The Corrections' Officers Benevolent Association of New York City has complained of conditions that expose corrections officers and inmates at Rikers to violent offenders and repeated assaults. Plans for jail reform do not matter if "the safety of staff and inmates doesn't exist," COBA president Elias Husamudeen wrote New York City Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte on March 21. Husamudeen also wrote that the Department of Corrections has wrongly claimed that assaults on corrections officers are down, and was able to do this by classifying data in a different way.
The New York Post reported Thursday that a panel led by New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman would recommend closing Rikers and replacing it with new jails spread throughout the city. The 10-year plan would also include putting many of the Rikers inmates back on the streets under "supervised release," the Post reported.
“Our success in reducing crime and reforming our criminal justice system has paved a path off Rikers Island and toward community-based facilities capable of meeting our criminal justice goals," de Blasio said in his statement Friday.
“There is no doubt that the road to Rikers Island’s closure will be long and arduous," the statement continued. "It will require that local officials and stakeholders stand up and support facilities that meet our moral obligation to thousands of New Yorkers whose lives we will never turn our backs on. It will require that our state government, and each component of our criminal justice system, contribute to the reform efforts critical to reducing our jail population and improving re-entry services and educational programming."