New York City’s Rikers Island has long been a hellhole and a national disgrace. For decades, the jail complex has been plagued by violence and chaos, but conditions have deteriorated dramatically in the past year as the Covid-19 pandemic has raged across the nation. Calls to close Rikers have continued to grow, but the timeline city officials have proposed stretches into the distant future, with mass decarceration completely off the table. But mass decarceration is exactly what’s needed to ensure that people aren’t simply being shuttled from one inhumane situation to another.
As of October 25, Rikers incarcerated 114 people serving sentences of one year or less. Under the city’s 6-A program, Mayor Bill de Blasio could authorize them to serve their sentences at home under supervision. At the start of the pandemic, he released 312 people, but then did nothing until this past October, after word of escalating violence, chaos, and staff absences at Rikers hit the news. As of October 19, he had released seven people.
Shortly after taking office, Governor Kathy Hochul signed the Less Is More Act into law. The act, which restricts automatic incarceration for technical parole violations, resulted in the release of 239 people. However, as of October 25, 143 people remained jailed for technical parole violations.
Hochul also reached agreements with the city to move people from Rikers to state prisons. This included the transfer of 143 men serving city sentences and, more recently, a temporary transfer of all of the cisgender women and some trans people from Rikers to two women’s prisons—the Bedford Hills and Taconic correctional facilities. At least 128 women signed a petition opposing being moved farther from their families, attorneys, and communities. As one Bronx woman told Assembly member Amanda Septimo, “I’m here for a suspended license, but now I’m going to be placed in a maximum-security prison? That’s not fair or right at all.”
Meanwhile, in court each day, prosecutors continue to request and judges continue to set insurmountable bail amounts, consigning numerous people to months on the island awaiting their day in court. (Bail is supposed to ensure that people return to court. In January 2020, New York State briefly enacted bail reform, prohibiting prosecutors from requesting bail or pretrial detention except for violent felonies and select misdemeanors. The city’s jail population dropped by 40 percent. Six months later, in response to lobbying by police and prosecutors, those reforms were rolled back.)
There are 5,529 people in the city’s jails, as of October 25, the majority at Rikers. In contrast, last April the jail population was 3,832. That’s because, in an effort to stem the spread of Covid, fewer people were being sent to jail as police made fewer arrests for low-level offenses and judges chose to detain fewer people. It could have been the start of long-lasting decarceration—drastically reducing the numbers of people behind bars—and the shuttering of the island’s 10 jails.
Instead, the city—police, prosecutors, and judges—quickly resumed business as usual, locking up greater numbers of people again. The record number of staff absences means that far fewer people are brought to court, and that means they stay behind bars even longer.
As the number of people sent to jail has increased, so has the number of people who have died in the city’s jails. During the first 10 months of the year, 14 people died while waiting for a day in court that would never come. The 14th—Anthony Scott—died after attempting to take his own life after the judge (Nestor Diaz) set bail at $15,000. Five others had already died by suicide.
Given Rikers’s decades-long history of brutality, the option of keeping it open should be off the table. And so should the option of shuttling people from Rikers to state prisons, where they are likely to experience the same overcrowding, medical neglect, and threat of violence, not to mention the persistent risk of contracting Covid. Last year, bail reform—and concerted efforts to stem Covid transmission—caused the city’s jail population to drop to a low not seen since World War II. The current crisis should push us back in that direction, decreasing the numbers in the hellhole (and possibly averting more deaths) until it can be closed.