On Wednesday, The New School held a panel discussion entitled “Rikers Island: Reform It—or Shut It Down?”
The event was co-sponsored by JustLeadershipUSA and the Humanities Action Lab at The New School. Given the troubling and notorious history of abuse at Rikers, the discussion probed at arguments for reforming the jail as well as arguments for shutting it down entirely.
Out of the 11,000 people on Rikers Island, only 800 to 900 have actually been convicted of crimes. In other words, more than 10,000 people on the island are still presumed innocent, the majority of which are people of color and/or poor. Many argue that people are held at Rikers because they cannot afford bail and not necessarily because they pose an actual risk to public safety.
According to Khary Lazarre-White, executive director and co-founder of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, there are around 400 youth currently held at Rikers, many of whom were arrested over relatively benign incidents, such as stealing another young person’s headphones or involvement in a fight at school—incidents that could and should have been addressed outside of the criminal justice system. Mr. Lazarre-White pointed out on Wednesday that the same could be said for sending someone to Rikers for technical parole violations, like missing curfew.
Panelists argued that even “violent” crimes don’t necessarily include violence or a victim. For example, Kalief Browder—who committed suicide following a tumultuous jail term at Rikers—was accused of stealing a backpack, technically categorized as a violent crime.
Carmen Perez, executive director of The Gathering for Justice and co-founder of Justice League NYC, pointed to Browder’s case as a prime example of how the current flight-risk assessment is failing to properly identify those who can safely return to their communities. While there was no evidence found against Browder, and while most would argue he did not pose a risk to public safety, he was still detained and suffered through the traumas of Rikers, tragically to an irreparable end.
Panelists made the moral argument for shutting down Rikers by posing the question of whether anyone truly deserves to be there. Despite the presumption of innocence, detainees are subjected to cruel and unusual conditions. For example, Jerome Murdough, a homeless veteran who was arrested for trespassing in a stairwell while looking for a place to sleep, died after overheating in his cell, which was kept at over 100 degrees. According to a Department of Justice survey, upwards of 50 women at the Rose M. Singer Center are experiencing or have experienced rape or other sexual abuse by corrections staff at any given time, and many more incidents likely go unreported. 
Charles Nunez, a community advocate for Youth Represent, spoke about his time on Rikers as a teen. He described the emotional toll of only being referred to as a number and “walking on eggshells” amid a culture of violence; during one three-week span he was beaten every day. He worried about how the trauma affected his family when they saw his bruise-covered face during visits.
One can only wonder how many people have pleaded guilty to avoid these conditions of confinement, and how many of those people were innocent. The threat of pre-trial detention is enough to compel many innocents—or individuals accused of minor crimes—to accept plea offers that do not serve justice.
As voiced by multiple panelists, the people at Rikers are our community members and our neighbors. An effective movement for reform requires serious reflection on our tolerance of how people are treated at Rikers, and in the criminal justice system as a whole.
A video of The New School panel discussion can be viewed here:
Allen J. Beck et al., Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails Reported by Inmates, (2013) (hereinafter the “DOJ Survey”), available at http://www.bjs.gov/ content/ pub/pdf/svpjri1112.pdf.