Opinion: Creating a More Just New York City

The following is an op-ed by Stanley Richards
In order to close the infamous Rikers Island jail complex, New York City is seeking to cut its jail population in half and build a smaller system of facilities in the boroughs, so that detained people are held closer to the courts and to their families and support networks.
In Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens, the new facilities are located on, or near, existing jails.
In the Bronx, however, the current city jail is a boat docked near Hunts Point, which will be closed as part of the plan to shut down Rikers.
Instead, the proposed facility in the Bronx is on the site of an NYPD tow pound in Mott Haven.
I am a lifelong Bronx resident. I am also someone who was jailed on Rikers and who has devoted my life, since returning from prison, to helping people who have been incarcerated get back on their feet.
I believe that closing the nine jails on Rikers and moving to smaller borough-based facilities – including in the Bronx – is a critical step towards a better justice system.
In 2016, I was asked to serve on an independent commission to study New York City’s justice system. We concluded that the jail population could be safely reduced to 5,000, a number that would permit the closure of Rikers. Our recommendation was adopted by the city – and over the past year, the number of people in jail has declined by approximately 1,000 people.
We also concluded that the Rikers jails, which are poorly designed and deteriorating, should be replaced with smaller, modern facilities in each borough that are more accessible to family members who seek to visit their loved ones. Study after study demonstrates that visitation improves behavior inside jails and leads to better outcomes when a detained person returns to society.
I also know this from personal experience. I spent two years detained on Rikers Island – and my father came to visit me once. He spent an entire day traveling from Soundview for a one-hour visit. Afterwards, I asked him not to come back. He was not the one charged with a crime, yet he had to endure hours of travel just to show me he loved me. Expressing love and support for a detained family member should not be so hard, especially when it has such a positive impact.
It is also important that jails be located near the courthouses. More than 75 percent of detained people are awaiting trial, meaning they haven’t been convicted of a crime and must travel the long distance from Rikers to borough courthouses for court appointments, a process that is expensive, inefficient, often brutal, and can cause case delays. While the Mott Haven site is not adjacent to the courthouse, it is much closer than Rikers.
Closing Rikers also provides a chance to reimagine what a jail can be. While better design won’t prevent all incidents of violence, it can help make jails safer – both for detained people and the corrections officers – and provide dedicated space to help people prepare to re-enter society.
At the Fortune Society, where I work, we serve 7,000 people annually, most of whom have come through Rikers multiple times. I know firsthand the importance of starting to work with people on reentry plans when they first enter the justice system to provide a foundation for lasting engagement. A new system can afford the opportunity to shift from the current approach of “Care, Custody, and Control” to “Care, Engagement, and Community Reentry.”
Just as jails can be better designed on the inside, they can also be designed to fit within the surrounding neighborhood. In the plans released last week, the City set aside one-third of the tow pound plot for community uses, which could include affordable housing units, ground floor retail space, or other aspects of the development plan put forth by local residents.
It is understandable that those who live nearby are concerned about the impact that a jail will have, but borough jails haven’t harmed other areas of our city. When the jail in downtown Brooklyn reopened in 2012, the surrounding community was also concerned – but property values have risen and crime has fallen. Similarly, the jail in downtown Manhattan shares a plot with senior housing, a medical center, and restaurants and other shops.
There is no question that the administration should have done a better job as it rolled out its plan to close Rikers, particularly by involving Bronx officials and community members at the outset. Moving forward, all stakeholders have to be at the table. But we must remember what we are trying to accomplish – ending mass incarceration that disproportionately impacts minorities. We must not let perfect be the enemy of good.
At the end of the day, one new facility in the Bronx will help end the ongoing misery at Rikers and provide a better environment for detained people, their families, and correction staff.
Stanley Richards, Executive Vice President at The Fortune Society, Inc., member of the Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, and member of the Justice Implementation Task Force.


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