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Opinion: Mayor de Blasio Must Act Now to Make ‘Renewable Rikers’ Part of His Legacy

This month, the mayor announced he will be reopening one of the closed jails on Rikers to accommodate the rising jail population driven by unchecked fear mongering from his police commissioner. This is the wrong move, especially under the horrific conditions in which people are currently being held.’

Jarrett Murphy

Rikers Island.

If you haven’t noticed, the climate has been changing around the world. And not for the better. Just last month, flash floods like we’d never seen before stunned our city and cost some of our neighbors their lives. So, in the fight to at least minimize the lethal effects of climate change, we should be changing our policies and practices now. New York City has an opportunity to do just that while also addressing another primary social justice issue in our city—the continued human rights catastrophe that is Rikers Island.

In 2019, after years of organizing by survivors of Rikers and our allies, New York City voted to close ‘Torture Island,’ aka Rikers. In February 2021, we took the next step forward by passing the Renewable Rikers Act—a set of three bills that create a pathway to transition Rikers from its shameful history of incarceration and brutality to hub for green infrastructure.

A key part of the plan is Local Law 16, which requires that every six months, starting July 1, 2021, the city must assess what areas of Rikers Island are not in active use for services to incarcerated people, and transfer them out of the control of the Department of Correction to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. In fact, the transfer of ownership began this July with the James A. Taylor Center, and will continue until August 2027, when DOC must hand over the island entirely.

I spent 14 months on that decrepit island—an island that was physically expanded to four times its original size by dumping the city’s garbage on it and creating a landfill. It’s an Island that also illegally held free Black men sent there by corrupt judge Richard Riker, who kidnapped them to sell into slavery down South where unfortunately the practice was still legal.

Renewable Rikers will take the soon-to-be-empty land on Rikers Island and transition it to green uses like solar panels and battery storage, composting facilities, and state-of-the-art wastewater treatment facilities. This would help New York City generate our own renewable energy, reduce our carbon footprint, and keep our waterways cleaner, while closing down aging, highly polluting infrastructure like peaker plants that are burdening communities.  

I experienced not only the ugliness and torture that was created on this land, but also a feeling that legally and morally, Rikers does not belong to the DOC or the city—it belongs to its original inhabitants, the Lenape. When the Dutch and English Settlers arrived in America they began a slow process of raping the land and nature that indigenous people believed and still believe is a part of them, that they are one with. With the greening of this land, and our city, through Renewable Rikers, we can right some of those atrocities the early settlers committed as well as the more recent ones committed by individuals such as Mr. Riker and by our brutal criminal punishment system. Some of the native animals may also return—like some pals for the fat groundhog I used to see next to the Rosie M Singer Center. 

But right now, this vision and all its powerful benefits are in danger. This month, the mayor announced he will be reopening one of the closed jails on Rikers to accommodate the rising jail population driven by unchecked fear mongering from his police commissioner. This is the wrong move, especially under the horrific conditions in which people are currently being held. New Yorkers have already decided—we are ending mass incarceration, closing the Rikers Island jails and moving on to a better future. The mayor should close and transfer at least three more jails on Rikers Island before his term ends: GMDC, which is already closed, along with EMTC and OBCC, which were slated to be closed months ago.  

Millions of people have been detained at Rikers over the past hundred plus years, tortured and humiliated without provocation, illegally and unconstitutionally held—desecrating the land believed to be sacred by its original inhabitants. Continuing to implement the Renewable Rikers Plan will allow people and the land to heal and flourish.  

Eileen M. Maher is a member of VOCAL-NY and the #Justice4Women Task Force.

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