Rikers Island: The Struggle with Control, Closure, and Community Reinvestment

The Fight For Control Over Rikers Island

Intense debate has erupted over the control of the Rikers Island jail system. Mayor Adams insists that handing control over to an independent body – as ordered by the court – would trigger chaos. However, the U.S. attorney and Legal Aid Society disagree, firmly advocating for this change as the best solution to upgrade the system.

Delays and Dilemmas – The Closure of Rikers Island

Meanwhile, the desperately awaited closure of Rikers Island is lagging behind schedule. Running and shutting down Rikers are challenging tasks that won’t get easier unless we rein in the ever-increasing inmate population. Data from last year signals a small rise in numbers, with an estimated 7,000 detainees expected this year alone. In contrast, the new borough jail plans can accommodate a mere 3,300 people.

Indeed, reducing intake from certain city neighborhoods to Rikers could ease the management and closure process significantly.

Addressing the Drivers of Incarceration

Numerous factors enhance the rate of incarceration, according to the Commission on Community Reinvestment and the Closure of Rikers Island, on which I serve. These factors encompass systemic racism, criminalization, socio-economic status, and mental health or substance abuse issues.

Our prison system is overwhelmingly populated by individuals from a small number of communities. This disproportionate representation is not random or unexpected, but an outcome of consistent underinvestment in these communities. Subpar education, inadequate housing, inaccessible healthcare, high poverty, and low employment rates are common struggles these neighborhoods face.

Taking Steps Towards a More Equitable Society

Mayor Adams has made visible efforts to tackle these disparities and curb the flow of individuals into the prison system. However, there’s still much work to be done.

The City Council’s proposed budget supports two significant investments promoted by criminal justice advocates; Justice Impacted Supportive Housing (JISH) and better community mental healthcare. While vital, these are not exhaustive measures.

Youth, Foster Care, and the Prison System

It’s crucial to focus on individuals who are on the verge of entering the justice system, particularly youths in or leaving foster care. Information reveals that people who’ve been in foster care feature heavily in prison demographics. They constitute 5% of the general population but make up 20% of the prison population.

Can Shelter Provide a Solution?

One critical requirement is better housing for youths transitioning out of foster care, given the high rates of homelessness and the connection between housing instability and criminal conviction. Therefore, funding more housing options for this vulnerable group is a key priority.

My organization, The Children’s Village, is soon launching a multifaceted development that includes a new public library, community center, and 174 affordable apartments in Inwood. Fifteen percent of these apartments are reserved for individuals transitioning from shelters. This initiative, while significant, is merely a start.

Addressing Mental Health Concerns

An undeniable need exists for dependable mental health services for these youths, who often carry traumatic histories. The Commission suggests integrating physical, mental health, and substance abuse treatment services. It also recommends 24/7 mental health and addiction crisis services to ensure consistent support for those in need.

Final Thoughts

The Commission on Community Reinvestment and the Closure of Rikers Island has suggested numerous additional strategies to lower incarceration rates and foster fairer policies. Regardless of the administrative decisions concerning Rikers, these efforts align with the ultimate goal: a society where we can provide enough support to keep people out of places like Rikers island.



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