Close Rikers — NOW.

November 16th, 2019

By Richard Bronson

People attend a protest march to shut down Rikers Island prison in the Queens borough of New York. Photo by REUTERS/Bria Webb

New York City has seen stunning gentrification throughout its five boroughs. “Bad” neighborhoods have been reborn and emerge as some of the most desirable to residents seeking affordable, convenient housing.

But the 413-acre island next to the East River, between the Bronx and Queens, has not been the beneficiary of any sort of revitalization. This location, more commonly known as Riker’s Island, New York City’s primary correctional facility, is infamous for its violence, its corruption and its abject lack of administered justice. People who have spent any time there know it as one of the world’s most evil place.

Approximately 100,000 men and women are admitted to the multi-building facility over the course of a year. 85% of them have never been convicted of a crime but are warehoused here in advance of court appearances that may be scheduled for months in the future. Separate facilities house those with incurable diseases or severe mental health issues.

Housing in New York is never cheap, and that includes at Riker’s Island, where the City pays more than $200,000 a year to incarcerate an inmate.

I spent time in Riker’s as well as its sister facility, the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Facility, better known as “the Barge.” The Barge is a floating jail, but any connections to a sun-drenched, luxury jaunt on the high seas couldn’t be more misguided. Like Riker’s, the Barge is a miserable, depressing, dirty, dangerous place that sucks hope from inmates and staff alike. The sun never seems to shine at these facilities; the smell of rancid fried food and peeling paint feed the mood of despair.

Inmates are herded to meals, lining up on either side of a dimly lit hallway. Inmates learn early the “stare,” the blank look that sees nothing but also sees everything and tells all that you are not someone to be messed with; the look suggests that you are but one provocation away from completely losing control.

There is a perpetual sense that violence could break out at any minute. There is a sense of evil in the air that’s palpable. Polite society might be enjoying cocktails and hors d’oeuvres no more than a mile away, but at Riker’s, men and women are treated as animals. Animals, in turn, do not care for their captors, the facilities’ guards. The captors feel justified in hating the animals.

Rather than modernize these facilities, given the decades-old traditions of violence and corruption that swirl around these Dickensian relics, the City plans on razing them to the ground, and build new decentralized facilities.

Riker’s Island is not the only awful correctional facility in the country, certainly, but its badness serves as a stark contrast to the wealth and opulence New York is known for.

Riker’s Island (and the Barge) need to be destroyed immediately. No human being, no inmate, no guard — no American — should be subjected to such an oppressive, dangerous environment.

Riker’s Island needs to be shut down immediately.

Richard Bronson, Founder/CEO

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