Why Is It So Hard to Close Rikers?

Why Is It So Hard to Close Rikers?

New York City’s public advocate Jumaane D. Williams and journalist Nick Pinto talk to Laura Flanders about the difficulties of shrinking the incarceration system.


Rikers Island, a complex of 10 jails on an island in the East River in New York City, houses more than 6,000 inmates. It’s rife with dysfunction and violence. There are interminable delays and a lack of care and justice. In October 2019, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law a plan to permanently close Rikers and create four neighborhood facilities instead. It was all scheduled to be done by August 2027, but the plan has run up against massive roadblocks. The story shows how hard it is to shrink the incarceration system once it has grown this large in such an unequal place. Journalist Nick Pinto is cofounder of Hell Gate, a worker-owned news outlet covering New York City. Jumaane D. Williams is New York City’s public advocate. As a city council member, he helped pass the law to close Rikers. Elected public advocate in 2019, he is now the prime sponsor of legislation that would ban solitary confinement in the city’s jails.

—Laura Flanders

Laura Flanders: Public Advocate Williams, you have visited Rikers, you’ve been inside probably more than once. Can you describe for us what you saw there?

Jumaane D. Williams: I’ve visited Rikers several times. I believe it was the end of 2021, if I was told about what I saw, I would not have believed the people who told me. It was a fully dysfunctional jail. We saw people in cells that were supposed to house two, three people with maybe seven or eight. They had plastic bags as bathrooms. We saw one person who had been in the shower stall, I was told, for over 24 hours. I didn’t know if he was wet with urine or with water. Literally had detainees who were out of their cells just walking around. It happened to be the anniversary of Attica. I said—the mayor got mad at me, but it was true—I was like, we are just an incident away from that. That’s how insane and how bad it was for everyone involved.

LF: There was a law passed declaring Rikers to be on a schedule to shut down. Then what happened, Nick?

Nick Pinto: There are a number of groups who don’t like the plan to close Rikers and replace it with borough-based jails. One of those groups is jail and prison abolitionists who look at a plan to build new carceral structures where people will be held in detention by many of the same people who are currently holding them on Rikers and say, why would we refresh this institution with new buildings that will last another hundred years? Let’s close Rikers and not build new jails. Another set of opposition comes from people who own property or businesses in the immediate vicinity of where the new jails are proposed, who are worried about their real estate values. I think most significantly there is the constellation of guards’ unions who recognize that closing Rikers and replacing them with smaller jails involves dramatically reducing the jail population, which in turn means shrinking their membership and their power. They’re opposed to closing Rikers for that reason, and they have powerful allies in City Hall right now.

LF: Which is to say they’re big backers of the current mayor, Eric Adams.

NP: That is the case.

LF: Where do you stand on the neighborhood jail plan, PA Williams?

JW: It’s not something that I would say wholeheartedly, “Oh, this is great, we’re going to do this,” but this is something we have to do, and this is now the law, so we have to move forward. Rikers Island has been out of sight for such a long time. I think that’s part of the reason that we allow people to languish there. As leaders, if we would take the time to have a conversation instead of trying to fit the 30-second sound bite—public safety doesn’t fit in within 30 seconds—to walk New Yorkers through a plan, that will help keep them safe. They are ready for that. And closing Rikers and moving forward with the law is part of that.

LF: It did look for a moment as if we were making progress. The population of people detained is going to have to shrink if they’re going to fit into those neighborhood-based jails. The numbers were coming down a while ago. They now seem to be going back up.

NP: They let a lot of vulnerable, sick, and elderly people out in the first flush of Covid. Since that time, the population has been going up. Some of it has to do with the change of administration. I mentioned the new mayor. A lot of it has to do with change in the political winds, and a backlash against the sort of rollback of mass incarceration that was progressing several years ago. We now are seeing at the state level, even at the federal level and certainly at the city level, a political coalition of Republican politicians and district attorneys and law enforcement as well as conservative news media who share a sense that there’s something to be gained by portraying crime in the city as out of control. In suggesting that, the only solution is to lock more people up. When we lock more people up, they go to Rikers.

JW: I think people will be surprised when they hear there were fewer people in Rikers pre-pandemic. Everybody thinks that the “lefties” let everybody out. There are more people there now. To add to what Nick was saying, it’s not just Republicans. Unfortunately, it’s Democratic leaders who are using Republican-like talking points, because they are afraid of having a real conversation.

LF: This situation is not isolated to New York City. To what extent is this Rikers crisis reflective of a bigger national problem?

NP: Detention in this country is in the main, both broken and inhumane, and the systems that send people there remain largely unfair and extremely racist. So in that sense, Rikers is sort of a microcosm of larger issues with how this country feels about mass incarceration and what it’s willing to do and what it’s not willing to do to step away from 50 years of mass incarceration.

LF: I sometimes think that we need not just an economic and political shift, we need a spiritual shift in our relation to one another. And much as I’m against more jails, PA Williams, I do think perhaps having them closer to more of us where we live would improve or increase at least our consciousness of what we’re responsible for.

JW: I think that is correct, a hundred percent correct. Sometimes people say they want to deal with a problem or fix it when they mean they don’t want to see it. When we don’t want to see the buildings that people are housed in, when we don’t want to see homeless people, a lot of bad things happen, because there are real decisions that have to be made on real human beings. This is all of us, and the more we isolate—us versus them—it’s us today, we’re them tomorrow.

LF: You have said we need to invest, along with divesting from incarceration. We need to invest in other measures, like what?

JW: We have put out a report discussing that we need to have respite centers and places where people can go in immediate times to get assistance. In respite centers, you don’t need to have a doctor’s note. You don’t need to have a diagnosis. You can go in and get the assistance that you need. We need to make sure that we’re getting people into housing that has supportive measures. We need to make sure there’s a continuum of care, but we seem to get stuck at the immediacy of a tragedy like Michelle Go, a tragedy like Jordan Neely, and we feed off of the emotions in a way that’s not helpful and has not gotten us to where we need to go. What we need is leaders who will stand up and say, “No, this is the plan, this is what we’re going to do.” But I feel like most folks are trying to figure out how to win their next election as opposed to how to help New Yorkers.

LF: There have been a lot of people elected on a criminal-justice reform program and successfully so, I’m thinking of Brandon Johnson in Chicago. Coming to you Nick, do you agree that there is a road map for change? Just a lack of political will?

NP: I think that’s right. There is a road map. There is a plan to close Rikers that we are currently deviating from. And so yes, I think it is a question of political will, and I think the sort of education that’s necessary to bring the voting public along with the sort of change is difficult. It’s especially difficult in the face of a concerted fearmongering campaign.

LF: Politicians do their best, but we need media megaphones. It does seem to me there are quite a few arguing the “tough on crime” line. Do you want to reflect on the media?

NP: The media, I would say in the aggregate, has been terrible on these issues. At the far extreme, the New York Post is a Rupert Murdoch–owned tabloid that I think it’s fair to say has a political agenda in pushing the narratives of fear and the crime scare. But it’s not limited to that. Other tabloids and newspapers and especially local TV news are extremely invested in news cycles that revolve around frightening anecdotal incidents of crime. That’s just something that collects eyeballs. It’s good for the business model even if it’s not reflective of reality or good for society.

JW: I just want to point out how impactful it is, and you can go back and listen to yourself. The governor, when discussing bail reform, said she was responding to headlines that she saw in the media. That’s incredible. That is incredible that you would say that out loud instead of looking at the evidence, looking at the data, and helping our state figure out how we should move forward. We’re looking at headlines like the New York Post’s, as salacious as they want to be, to help move us in a direction that we know is harmful even though the data says something else. People do not believe that New York City is one of the safest big cities in this country right now. They wouldn’t believe it, but it’s true.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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