Author:Marton, Janos
Position:Special Issue: The Geography of Confinement

Introduction 500 I. Rikers Island: A History of Racism, Violence, and Corruption 503 A. Richard Riker 504 B. Creating the Rikers Island Jail Complex 505 C. Problems Arise: Rikers Island Jail Complex from 1935-1980 507 D. Closing Rikers Island: The First Attempt 510 E. Violence Rises During the 1990s and 2000s 512 F. Modern Reform Failures 516 II. Policies to Decarcerate New York City and Close Rikers 519 A. New York City Decarceration Policies 521 1. Policing 521 2. Supporting and Expanding Alternatives to Detention 523 3. Mayor de Blasio's Roadmap and Task Force 525 B. State Level Policies 526 1. Bail Reform 526 2. Speedy Trial Reform 528 3. Discovery Reform 530 C. Role of District Attorneys 531 III. The #CLOSErikers Campaign 534 A. Organizing: Grassroots and Grasstops 535 B. Changing the Narrative 538 1. The Role of Actions in Shaping Narrative 538 a. September 2016 March to Rikers 539 b. December 2016 Vigil 541 c. "Bird-dogging": The Relentless Targeting of Mayor de Blasio 542 d. Digital Advocacy 545 2. Elected Officials 546 a. Former Speaker of the City Council: Melissa Mark-Viverito 547 b. New York City Comptroller: Scott Stringer 548 c. City Council Members 549 3. The Role of the Lippman Commission in Closing Rikers 550 a. Public Forum and Behind-the-Scenes Process 550 b. Lippman Commission Report 551 IV. Closing Rikers: Land Use Challenges 553 A. The Impact of NIMBYism in City Land Use Debates 554 B. Navigating ULURP and Potential Jail Siting 556 1. Manhattan 560 2. Brooklyn 561 3. Queens 563 4. The Bronx 564 5. Staten Island 566 C. Alternative Sites 567 Conclusion 568 INTRODUCTION

On March 31, 2017, following a year of intense pressure from the #CLOSErikers campaign, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced that closing the long-troubled Rikers Island jail complex ("Rikers Island") would become city policy. (1) Since Rikers Island opened eight decades ago, it has been marked by violence, (2) corruption, (3) lawsuits, (4) and blue ribbon commissions seeking to reform it. (5) Rikers Island's imperviousness to reform is what led to the formation of the #CLOSErikers campaign in 2016. (6) From its outset, the #CLOSErikers campaign, led by JustLeadershipUSA ("JLUSA"), has focused not only on shuttering the jail complex, but also on dramatically reducing the number of New Yorkers in city jails and reimagining the criminal justice system in New York--work that has continued even after Mayor de Blasio's announcement. (7) During the past year and a half, JLUSA has employed various strategies, such as community organizing, (8) coalition-building, (9) public demonstrations, (10) social media activism," and policy advocacy, (12) to advance a highly sophisticated campaign that has changed the landscape of criminal justice in New York.

Mayor de Blasio's announcement of his administration's intent to close Rikers Island (13) was a major policy victory for the #CLOSErikers campaign that garnered national attention, (14) but it is just a first step. Successful closure of Rikers Island faces several obstacles, including a need to reduce the number of New Yorkers in jail, (15) reform criminal justice policies, (16) and navigate thorny land use issues that govern the process for siting the community jails intended to replace Rikers Island. (17) Further, Mayor de Blasio has endorsed a ten-year timeline for closure, which the #CLOSErikers campaign finds unacceptably long. (18)

This Essay will discuss issues related to the closure of Rikers Island, focusing on the advocacy role played by the #CLOSErikers campaign. Part I of this Essay will situate the Rikers Island jail complex in the city's history. Part II will tackle the legislative and policy prescriptions required to reduce the city jail population in New York City to a level that is sufficient to effectively close Rikers Island. Specifically, this part will address reforms at the city, (19) state, (20) and court-system levels. (21) Part III will elucidate the strategies of #CLOSErikers, a campaign that was able to move its principal target, Mayor de Blasio, from initially opposing closure to supporting closure less than a year after the campaign launched. Part IV will analyze the land use issues triggered by the 420-acre jail complex's closure and the opening or renovating of community-based facilities across the five boroughs, including the politics behind New York City's fraught Uniform Land Use Review Procedure ("ULURP"). (22) The Essay concludes by assessing whether the city is currently on a timely path to closure.


    The Rikers Island jail complex has been mired in controversy since it first opened. (23) As Rikers Island grew in size decade after decade, particularly during the rise of mass incarceration, problems of violence, poor conditions, and mismanagement only magnified. By the time the campaign to #CLOSErikers launched in 2016, the grievances that fueled the campaign were decades in the making.

    Section I.A discusses Richard Riker and the racially charged history associated with the island's namesake. (24) Section I.B examines Rikers Island's troubled predecessor, the Blackwell's Island penitentiary ("Blackwell's"). (25) Section I.C addresses the problems that arose in Rikers Island during its first fifty years, before the rise of mass incarceration. Section I.D recounts the first attempt to close Rikers Island during Mayor Koch's administration. Section I.E revisits Rikers Island during the 1990s and early 2000s, when the jail complex was at its most overcrowded and dangerous. Section I.F concludes with an overview of recent failed attempts at reform.

    1. Richard Riker

      In 1664, the same year that the British seized the fledgling Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, Abraham Rycken, a wealthy Dutch merchant, purchased an eighty-seven acre island up the East River. (26) As the British cemented their local rule, the family name was anglicized to "Riker," and the island became known as Rikers Island. (27) It remained under family control until it was purchased by the City of New York in 1884. (28)

      The family's most infamous descendant was Richard Riker, (29) whose history is particularly troubling given the deleterious impact of Rikers Island on New York City's communities of color. From 1815 to 1838, Riker served as the City Recorder, a judicial role that involved management of the city's criminal courts. (30) Riker was named a member of the "Kidnapping Club" by an abolitionist weekly newspaper, The Emancipator, which reported his involvement with a group that sold free black people to the South without due process. (31) Through a series of essays in the late 1830s, The Emancipator revealed Riker's role in sending black families to the South without hearings or jury trials, and his reputation for locking up free blacks in jail for months without evidence. (32) In one case, Riker ignored the testimony of witnesses and an affidavit from a Maryland clerk attesting to a man's free status. (33) A separate "vile and despicable outrage" involved the seven-year-old Henry Schoot, who was dragged out of his elementary school by a Virginia slave-owner, Richard Haxall, who claimed that Schoot was the property of Haxall's late father. (34) Riker allowed the claim without proof of a will, jailing the child, who was eventually freed after a sustained multiracial campaign for his release. (35) In another instance, Riker ruled against a prominent abolitionist lawyer and for a Southern claimant, remarking, "I am glad the man has got his nigger again." (36)

    2. Creating the Rikers Island Jail Complex

      The island remained under control of the Riker family until its sale to the city in 1884 for $180,000 for its planned use as a penitentiary. (37) By then it had already served as a jail once--during the Civil War it was used as a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp. (38) At that time, controversy had erupted not over the jail conditions, but the cramped, dilapidated, and freezing conditions of the Union's 20th U.S. Colored Troops stationed there, for whom "[d]isease began to appear to an alarming extent, while there was no proper hospital in which to treat it." (39) These deplorable conditions were typical of jails at the time, including the predecessor to the Rikers Island jail complex, Blackwell's.

      Located on present-day Roosevelt Island, Blackwell's had long faced challenges of administrative corruption and overcrowded facilities. (40) The 700 cells at Blackwell's had been holding up to 1100 people at a given time, earning Blackwell's its reputation as "the Alcatraz of the East." (41) During the 1880s, the New York City Commissioners of Charities and Correction proposed that the city transfer its primary jail complex from Blackwell's Island to Rikers Island, (42) setting in motion a gradual and partial process hastened by revelations that organized crime was running Blackwell's facilities. (43)

      When Rikers Island was first purchased from the Riker family, it constituted only 87.5 acres, with half of its land less than three feet above sea level. (44) Beginning in the 1880s, Correction Commissioners sent prison labor from Blackwell's to pull up shoals from the East River marshes to expand and elevate the island. (45) These laborers also used metal, refuse, cinders, and dirt from subway excavations to enlarge the island. (46) The dumping of undesirable debris on the island did not go unnoticed. (47) In 1926, the New York Times reported that, "from the shores of Queens and the Bronx any day the smoking island looks like a volcano preparing for eruption." (48) New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses stated the dumping policy was "stupid, costly, and barbaric" to the point that "no public official [could] survive it." (49) Remarking on an outbreak of flies and rats, which the city combatted with an army of dogs and poison gas, the State Commission of Corrections urged the city to find a different location for the...

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