By Phineas Rueckert
It was the culmination of a long day of mobilization. Just after 4 p.m. on Tuesday, formerly incarcerated people, activists and family members of people detained on Rikers Island released dozens of white balloons into the air from the base of the Rikers Island Bridge.
The balloons, each one representing someone who had died at Rikers, transversed the heavily guarded bridge that separates the island from mainland Queens, disappearing out of sight.
The crowd erupted into applause. Cars driving by honked in support. The activists’ work, however, did not end there.
The city has said it will fully close Rikers — the 10-jail complex that currently houses just over 7,500 people — by 2026 and transfer inmates to four borough-based jails, including one that would be located behind the Queens Criminal Courthouse in Kew Gardens. But the activists want it shut down now, calling the outdated, dangerous facilities a “human rights crisis.”
“We’re asking to close Rikers now, not in 10 years, [but] as soon as possible and that the voices of those impacted stay centered in the middle of this campaign,” said Deanna Hoskins, the Executive Director of Just Leadership, one of the groups organizing the rally.
Throughout the day, #CLOSErikers and Just Leadership activists visited courthouses in Queens, Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx to encourage borough presidents to endorse their effort.
The group later released a statement calling for “reducing the borough-based facilities capacity to under 3,000 beds through additional legislation and executive action including an end to the NYPD’s gang database and raids, broken windows policing, implementing treatment for people with serious mental health needs, and funding ATIs to scale to eliminate City year sentences.”
The city estimates that the detained population will decrease to about 4,000 people by 2026, down from an initial estimate of 5,000 people. The plans for the borough-based jails still include beds to accommodate more than 5,700 detainees.
About 7,500 people are currently detained in city jails, mostly on Rikers.
Though conditions at Rikers are widely considered inhumane, deaths in the island jails remain relatively rare. Last July, an 18-year-old was choked to death by another inmate in the mental health wing. According to the New York Times, that death was the first since 2012, when a diabetic inmate, Ronald Spear, was beaten to death by a corrections officer.
During the rally, Close Rikers activist Darren Mack compared the jail to the “Abu Ghraib of New York City,” while calling for it to be closed “sooner rather than later.”
The Close Rikers movement was founded with the idea that people directly affected by Rikers should also be the ones playing a role in closing it. The mission to shut down the jails has gained momentum in recent years, said Hoskins, of Just Leadership, citing changes to state laws such as bail reform and the possibility for “speedy trial” legislation.
Hoskins also said her own experience with incarceration has led her to support the city’s borough-based jails plan. “[Community jails] addressed me as an individual and provided me the resources [I needed], and I have not returned to incarceration since that community based facility,” she said.
Vidal Guzman, who was incarcerated on Rikers several times and now speaks about criminal justice reform nationwide, encouraged more advocates to get involved in the mission to close Rikers.
“There comes to be a certain point as communities, as people who wake up every single day, want to do some difference in the world,” Guzmn said. “It can start here and now,”
Guzman said he experienced homelessness from the age of six, and began selling drugs at eight. By 14, he was affiliated with The Bloods. Now released from prison, he remains on gang parole. “We just mirror what is happening around us,” he said.
For the Close Rikers activists, releasing the balloons served as a powerful demonstration of solidarity with detainees and inmates who remain incarcerated there, as well as ones who have been released.
“When I look at individuals that have been through Rikers and being in the same space as them is really powerful to know that we went through the same situation,” Guzman said. “One of the things I keep saying is just because a person leaves Rikers doesn’t mean Rikers left them. As human beings, as New Yorkers, we need people to come out here and support us. That’s all that really matters.”