What’s Happening to Rikers Island?

Rikers Island is a hot mess—but the plan to close it is even worse.

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Imagine a mega jail looming above Chinatown—a 40-story-high concrete monstrosity that would replace the older and smaller Manhattan Detention Complexes. Some may recall the massive outcry last year over a New York City plan to build the world’s tallest jail in Chinatown. Local residents feared that the construction would displace senior housing, green space, and small businesses, especially restaurants and shops that have been run by Chinese families for generations. But why was this plan proposed in the first place?

The plan to construct the mega jail is one step toward closing Rikers Island, a correctional facility on the East River. Established in 1932, the jail contains over 10,000 inmates. But harsh criticisms of the jail’s various humanitarian violations have plagued the facility for decades. Historical concerns have included overpopulation, corruption, rising rates of prisoner suicides, and incessant brutality, especially against adolescent prisoners. In fact, adolescent prisoners faced violence from correctional officers 571 times in the 2019 fiscal year, inciting rage from sympathetic activists. Along with violence, correctional officers have been known to engage in corrupt conduct, such as bribery and fraud. More recently, critics have focused on the toxic fumes leaching from landfills beneath the facility and terrible COVID-19 protocols. The hatching of the plan to close the Rikers facility is largely credited to Ed Koch, who presided over New York City as mayor from 1978 to 1989. Yet, four decades after the Koch administration, Rikers has made hardly any progress toward closing. The city’s most recent push to end the jail once and for all has been delayed to 2027. Until then, prisoners will still be incarcerated daily, and Q100 buses will ferry solemn visitors down to the facilities every 10 minutes. 

There are several problems with the closing of Rikers Island. First, inmates who would be displaced upon jail closure would need a new place to reside. This has triggered plans to create new jails, such as the proposal for Chinatown. But even if we build these new facilities, there are only enough cells to house 3,300 of the 10,000 Rikers inmates. The second problem is the lack of government funds. It is estimated that the total cost of shutting down the facility would range from $5 billion to $7 billion. This is nearly impossible for the city to scrape together, which segues into the third problem: the rampant lack of organization within both the city government and Rikers itself. The history of violence and corruption among Rikers correctional officers is no secret, but a recently emerging problem is the unusual way in which the City Council is operating.

In a deviation from the standard way politicians get caught in gridlock and don’t resolve issues they have the resources to solve, the New York City Council has passed a plan that attempts to force facilities on Rikers Island to close. The plan includes two pieces of legislation that require every incarcerated person to leave Rikers by August 31, 2027. But because the city has neither enough available jails nor enough money to make this happen in the next four years, it seems this plan will likely go bust. This puts the city in a precarious time crunch in which inmates must be relocated quickly. 

So, what will happen? New York City Mayor Eric Adams has suggested an incredibly ambiguous “Plan B” that seems as unlikely to materialize as Plan A. The most likely scenario is that a certain number of inmates will be sent to smaller jails across New York City. Perhaps some will even be shuttled upstate, joining the few hundred Rikers inmates that have been relocated out of the city in the past few years. If funding suffices and local residents cease their protests, construction on the larger borough jails, including the Chinatown mega jail, may begin in the coming years. As far as “ifs” go, this is a pretty big one. And even if the new facilities are built, insufficient capacities may result in over half of Rikers inmates being released. With the surging migrant crisis in New York and less affordable housing than ever, it is unlikely that those released from Rikers will be able to find a place to live. Rikers’ recidivism rate, the rate of convicted criminals who reoffend, is already quite high at 20 percent, with one in five released inmates finding themselves back in prison within three years. This number will likely increase if these newly released inmates find themselves homeless.

 Suffice it to say, this plan is missing several critical details and will likely face massive backlash, whether successful or not. At this stage in development, opponents are still calling to cancel the closing of Rikers Island, which, despite all of its humanitarian abuses, may be the more feasible option for now.