Rikers is New York City’s infamous pre-trial detention center where Black and brown New Yorkers have been terrorized since 1932. A lesser-known fact is that the people held there have not been convicted of a crime, they many times simply do not have the money to purchase their freedom and fight their case from the outside.
New York City is one of the largest and most diverse cities in the world. There are almost 9 million people crammed into this little city, over 41% of whom are white. Yet over 90% of the people held at Rikers are Black or brown.
In 2019, the Campaign to Close Rikers emerged and advocates introduced a plan to shut it by reducing the jail’s population to 3,300 and closing the additional run-down city jails committing the same abuses against the people within it. A third measure would divert the $1.8 billion that would be saved annually by lowering the population to 3,300 into housing, healthcare, education, economic development and youth services in poor communities.
Adams promised that if elected, he would support former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to close the jail altogether and to create “systemic change.” Adams has now expressed skepticism about the plan to close Rikers by 2027.
His argument is that too many people are incarcerated at Rikers for them to close the jail by then … because where would we put all these people who haven’t been convicted of a crime while they await their trial. I imagine we could put them in the same place we put rich people accused of crimes—their homes—but let’s explore his argument.
Built to only hold 3,000 people, Rikers contains approximately 5,500 people. The packed cells and worsening deaths, abuse, violence and illness are also evidence of how cash bail has been weaponized against the poor to deprive them of their rights.
New York City’s landmark bail reform addressed this issue by eliminating cash bail for most misdemeanors, low-level offenses and nonviolent crimes. In turn, Rikers’ population was drastically reduced, a necessary step to closing the jail.
According to the New York City Comptroller’s office, there was been essentially no change in the monthly percentage of people rearrested while released pending trial after bail reform. And yet, unfounded fearmongering by people like Adams brought about rollbacks that rose the population about 7 to 11%.
Adams continues to oppose bail reform and asks lawmakers to pass more restrictive laws that would increase Rikers’ already sky-high population, as well as appoint more “tough on crime” judges.
That is not the conduct of someone who has any interest in lowering the jail’s population to facilitate its closing, despite acknowledging it is already thousands of people too high and has caused deaths, violence, suicide and rampant abuse. He’s also fighting off calls for a receivership.
For the last six years, federal judge Laura T. Swain has tried and repeatedly failed to muscle New York City into getting Rikers under control. She even appointed a monitor for the prisons. Still, the city has demonstrably failed to comply with every mandate and deaths continue to mount. Advocates have asked the court to place Rikers under receivership.
A receivership would allow the court to appoint a non-partisan expert who is given wide latitude to address the crisis and be answerable only to the court, and not state and local laws and bureaucratic agencies, allowing them to make progress in ways the city personnel could not. Once brought up to constitutional standards, the control of Rikers would then return to the state and locality.
Under Eric Adams’ leadership, Rikers already has 15 deaths — just one death shy of 2021’s 16-person death toll, which was the highest death toll since 2013. People continue to be held in solitary confinement conditions despite a law outlawing it, which Adams dismisses as “restrictive housing,” and the level of depraved indifference on the part of the Department of Corrections has reached unprecedented heights.
Most recently, video footage emerged of three corrections officers standing and watching Michael Nieves, a man incarcerated in Rikers’ mental health unit, bleed to death for 10 minutes after slitting his throat with a razor blade he’d been given. Last week, a corrections officer placed Kevin Bryan inside of a staff bathroom where he hanged himself from a pipe.
In March, Herman Diaz choked to death on an orange while other incarcerated people unsuccessfully begged officers to intervene. Three months later, Antonio Bradley hanged himself inside a holding cell, But Adams chose not to inform the U.S. Department of Justice of the in-custody death, preventing the federal government from sending someone down to launch an investigation until much later.
“I don’t see that as a coverup or a violation of any rule,” Adams said, responding to allegations of a cover-up. “If it is, we will definitely correct it. But my understanding is that a place of death is where they died.”
You cannot simultaneously recognize that a jail is so out of control that it needs to be closed entirely and still insist that you’re capable of managing it. Yet, that’s the exact message Adams continues to push to New Yorkers.
The systemic change Adams promised must’ve been radical with depraved indifference to human life because not only have conditions at Rikers persisted, they’ve worsened. It’s time for Rikers to be placed under receivership.
Olayemi Olurin is a public defender, movement lawyer and political commentator in New York City.
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