Rikers Island, New York’s most notorious jail, is a decrepit monument to an era of mass incarceration that robbed generations of black, Hispanic and other Americans of their humanity.
It is scheduled to close by the end of 2026.
On Thursday, the City Council voted to build four jails across the city, a critical step toward making the closing of Rikers a reality. The plan it approved will further shrink the capacity of the city’s jails from about 22,000 to around 3,800.
The vote came amid a raucous scene in Lower Manhattan. Protesters passionately opposed to building any new jails chained themselves to the City Hall gates. One group of Chinatown residents implored Councilwoman Margaret Chin to vote against rebuilding the jail in their district. Police officers stood by with plastic cuffs.
But inside City Hall, the loudest voices were of those who supported the plan: a motley, excited group of city officials, community activists and family members and friends of those people who had been incarcerated.
Helping to grease the wheels, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Council speaker, Corey Johnson, offered roughly $265 million for criminal justice reform, education and mental health. In the end, all four Council members whose districts will have the jails voted yes, along with a majority of their colleagues.
Councilwoman Diana Ayala, who voted in favor of building a jail in her Bronx district, said she cast her vote in honor of a younger brother who, she said, struggled with mental illness and has been in and out of jails, including Rikers. “We abandoned him,” Ms. Ayala said. “We abandoned him as a city.”
Ms. Chin, who faced some of the fiercest opposition, said it was a matter of conscience. “My duty as a City Council member cannot end at the edge of Lower Manhattan,” she said. “This is the right thing to do.”
Mr. Johnson gave a rousing speech calling Rikers “a stain on New York City.” It was met with shouts of “Amen!”
As Mr. Johnson paused to acknowledge the group of activists who fought to close Rikers and were formerly incarcerated on the island, rows of men and women stood up in the chamber’s soaring balcony, drawing loud applause.
In the early 1990s, when I was a kid in Brooklyn, such a scene would have been unthinkable. Crime surged, and a crack cocaine epidemic swept across the city. Then, there were 21,000 people in the city’s jails. Policing and incarceration seemed to be the answer to everything that ailed New York. Research now suggests that incarcerating people accused of, or convicted of, minor crimes does little to prevent crime, and may even contribute to it. Nearly 80 percent of people incarcerated in the city’s jails haven’t been convicted of a crime.
During those years, my public school took a class field trip to a Brooklyn police precinct. Several of us have a vague memory of standing outside a group of cells. As I remember it, we were lined up in a row as an officer walked by us, cautioning that at least some of us could end up in a cell one day. I was 5, maybe 6, years old.
I didn’t set foot on Rikers Island until I took a tour this month. I immediately realized that even as a native New Yorker, my understanding of the city I love was incomplete. The sprawling complex of dilapidated trailers and dangerous labyrinths of cells is a blight. It is a place of violence and injustice sitting in the East River for all to see, but that most of us can ignore.
The city jails now hold just 7,100 people, a population that is projected to fall to 3,300 over the next several years. Crime is at record lows. Standing on Rikers Island, that kind of math hurts. Thinking about those people who were unnecessarily incarcerated, one is overwhelmed by the lost human potential.
That includes Kalief Browder, the 16-year-old teenager who spent three years on Rikers Island after being accused of stealing a backpack. It includes Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman who died at Rikers after being placed in a unit that is effectively solitary confinement. It includes Jerome Murdough, a mentally ill veteran who died from heat exposure in a Rikers cell in 2014.
This vote was for them.