RICHARDS: Close Rikers now or risk never closing it at all

Rikers Island. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Rikers Island. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

By Donovan Richards

For decades, advocates, many of them directly impacted by New York City’s criminal justice system, have organized to shutter Rikers Island forever. 

They have held this Council accountable and taken this Mayor to task time and again. Their work has brought closure into view, with the next step in the process falling squarely in our hands. Rikers Island stained this city’s reputation for far too long. We must vote yes to certify the city’s land use application and continue on the path to closing Rikers.

The Uniform Land Use Review Process that the Council will vote for on October 17 certifies the plans for four new buildings that are a necessary component of a larger plan focused on permanent decarceration and community investment. It will also include the closure of the 12 jails in this city — the nine on Rikers Island, the Barge, the Manhattan Tombs and the Brooklyn House. 

Approving the ULURP proposal will solidify the path to achieve these goals. Today, our city has the capacity to incarcerate more than 20,000 people. The ULURP proposal allows for a combined capacity of 3,300 between the four new facilities — a significant and historic reduction that sets New York City apart from every other city in the United States. 

The #CLOSErikers plan, developed by people and families of those directly harmed by Rikers, is the most sound, viable, humane plan to make our city the most decarcerated big city in the nation — and to do so in the quickest way possible. I am proud to be voting yes on October 17.

Councilmember Donovan Richards is a candidate for Queens Borough President. Photo courtesy of Richards’ office

Councilmember Donovan Richards is a candidate for Queens Borough President. Photo courtesy of Richards’ office

But as the vote draws near, opposition forces have resorted to spreading misinformation about the #CLOSErikers plan to defeat the vote. This would be disastrous and would ensure that Rikers remains open and continues to harm at least another generation of our most vulnerable residents. 

We have a responsibility to the thousands of residents whose lives have been destroyed by these awful cages to fully understand the proposal before offering our opinion and support. A vote in favor of the ULURP proposal will open a path for four new detention facilities. But to vote the proposal down is a vote to keep Rikers open indefinitely. That is the choice we are facing. This we cannot do. 

I have had family and friends waste away in the hellhole that is Rikers Island with a serious lack of programming and vocational training that could have helped them lead a new life after incarceration. Unfortunately, rehabilitation has never been a legitimate priority, since all Rikers has done is create a vicious cycle of repeat offenders coming in and out of the island that has done nothing but create a new era of Jim Crow where black and brown New Yorkers are still enslaved in the criminal justice system.

As the Chairman of the Public Safety Committee, I am intimately familiar with injustices that remain in our city’s legal punishment system and the impermissible state of the jails in which we detain people. The Rikers Island jails are beyond repair and must be destroyed. 

We cannot leave people in these decrepit facilities and we cannot entertain plans to renovate them given their historic reputation in our city and the fact that they are, for countless reasons, beyond repair or redemption. Doing so wholly ignores the immense physical harm that Rikers, the Barge, the Tombs and Brooklyn House inflict on people due to the egregious inhumanity and toxicity — literally, in the case of Rikers Island — that defines the culture of those facilities.

As a City Councilmember, I have worked tirelessly to ensure the residents of my district, Queens and all of New York City are provided the opportunities to thrive. As the Chair of the Environmental Protection Committee, I have fought to ensure we are not subjecting underinvested communities to inhumane environmental conditions. 

And as the Chair of the Zoning and Franchises Committee I helped negotiate a more inclusive affordable housing plan that became the most aggressive affordable housing policy in the nation. 

I know from experience that investing in communities not only improves public safety but also enables our communities to flourish. Working hand in hand with the advocates who have led this conversation to create and advance a real plan to close Rikers and invest in communities, I intend to continue to hold the mayor and my colleagues accountable. After this vote, the city will not only shutter Rikers and other jails permanently, but also provide the necessary investments to rectify the harms Rikers has inflicted for decades. 

I have invested the time to talk with my constituents and understand the full scope of the challenges before us. The Close Rikers plan thoughtfully provides solutions for all of these, which is why I will be supporting the ULURP proposal on Oct. 17. The rest of New York City should too. 

Council Member Donovan Richards is the chair of the Committee on Public Safety and represents District 31 in Queens, which encompasses Laurelton, Rosedale, Springfield Gardens and Far Rockaway.