The Rikers Island prison complex has become synonymous with the worst aspects of New York City’s criminal justice system. The prison is known for its entrenched culture of violence and poor conditions, which earlier this year led New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio to announce that the city would close Rikers by 2027.
For many, the announcement was long overdue. On November 15, The New School’s Office of Social Justice and Parsons School of Design hosted a one-day conference called “Reimagining Justice: NYC Without Rikers.” Conference participants examined structural policies governing incarceration and ways the city can “reimagine a justice system that centers on healthy individuals, families, and communities” and begin to change the culture of the city’s jail system. Rikers is made up of eight facilities and is used primarily to incarcerate people being held before trial. It also houses a smaller population of inmates who have been sentenced to less than a year.
In her opening remarks, Maya Wiley, Henry Cohen Professor of Urban Policy and Management and senior vice president for social justice at The New School, referred to the prison as a “valley of ashes.”
“It’s meant the incineration of hopes and dreams for far too many people,” she said. “We want to do more than reimagine Rikers Island as a closed facility. We actually want to participate in reimagining what it means to support communities.”
Dana Kaplan, the deputy director of the mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, told the audience that the closing of Rikers has become a moral imperative for the city and that the work of community organizations and advocacy groups pushed the mayor’s office to reach that decision. Also critical was former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark- Viverito’s creation of the Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform in 2016.
Kaplan described everything that is wrong with the prison: facilities that fail to meet modern standards, limited visitation rights, a remote location leading to transportation delays that prevent timely resolution of cases, and an overall “dehumanizing experience” for prisoners.
“It impedes the very things that we know are the parts of what is a more just justice system — being connected to service providers, families, attorneys, and being able to have effective access to the courts,” Kaplan said.
In 1991, there were 20,000 people in city jails on a monthly basis, according to statistics provided by Kaplan. Currently, the jail population is 8,000 people, and the De Blasio administration aims to reduce that number to 5,000.
Following Kaplan’s presentation, Wiley moderated the first panel of the conference, called “Community Centered Justice — A Framework to Reimagine Justice.”
Panelist Jennifer Jones Austin, the CEO and executive director of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies and a member of the NYC Board of Corrections, bluntly likened Rikers Island imprisonment to “modern-day slavery.”
“Rikers is like modern slavery, the difference being there is no real skill building,” she said. “People who go in disadvantaged come out further disadvantaged.”
A point of agreement among most of those in attendance is that it would be disastrous for the closing of Rikers to lead to the opening of new jails with the same substandard conditions and poor outcomes.
“I think we are in a milestone moment,” said Ana L. Oliveira, the president and CEO of the New York Women’s Foundation. “A very clear goal is dismantling this particular structure of mass incarceration and violence, but is not limited to that. Closing Rikers is both a physical exercise and a moral imperative. The idea is not to reproduce a mini-Rikers.”
Oliveira also discussed the particular difficulties faced by women incarcerated at Rikers’ Rose M. Singer Center, who are sometimes forgotten, along with the transgender and non-binary prison population.
“There’s nobody visiting them on visiting days because the stereotype of a woman who transgresses is uber-rejection,” said Oliveira.
Lillian Barrios Paoli, a former New York City deputy mayor, suggested that progress toward reform could be made if government, nonprofits, and the private sector all worked to guarantee a living wage and a basic right to housing. She argued that most people in the criminal justice system are driven by “poverty, lack of education, bad healthcare, and bad housing,”
Wiley suggested greater emphasis on newer models, like “Cure Violence,” that focus on how violence can be interrupted in high-crime neighborhoods and that have succeeded in reducing shootings and gun injuries in those neighborhoods.
She added that it was time to examine framing justice and prison reform as “public safety issues” and that private-sector real estate developers, along with government, philanthropy and religious-based organizations, can play a significant role in seeking solutions.
Jones Austin pointed out that although many people in New York were affected by what was happening on Rikers Island, too many New Yorkers are removed from the issue.
“They have no connection, no attachment, and no concern,” she said. “How do we create greater awareness, joint responsibility, and joint culpability?”
Other panels throughout the day centered on “probation, parole, and justice reform” and “self-determined solutions.” The self-determined solutions panel was led by the New School’s Institute for Transformative Mentoring Scholars.
In the day’s final panel, “Designing for Justice,” the discussion focused on the role of design thinking in reimagining the system of incarceration. Participants explored the evolving process of creating design and programming guidelines for “justice hubs,” facilities that are more “responsive to the needs of detainees, officers, lawyers, visitors and community members,” according to a report for the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform titled Justice in Design.
Mark Gardner, director of Parsons’ Master of Architecture program and an assistant professor of architectural practice and society, was one of the panelists.
“Before any architect or planner can tackle the design issues around the closing of Rikers, they must first rethink the language they are using to understand the place,” said Gardner. “When we use the word incarceration, we are talking about larger issues in our communities, such as access to education, environmental issues, mental health issues, and underfunded social infrastructures. Any solution has to start there.”