Riker’s. Photo Credit: John Moyers
The number one question asked since the campaign to end Rikers began is, “would you take a jail in your neighborhood?”
That question helps highlight some of the major issues with the criminal justice system.
First, it assumes that jail and prison is the only answer we have, even for the approximately 80% of people in Riker’s who have not been convicted, and are too poor to post even nominal bail. Second, it puts everyone on the defensive, making harder critical thinking by immediately thinking we don’t want “them.”
No one with a conscience, can see what’s happening on Rikers Island and think the facility should remain open. Part of the problem is its distance from the rest of the City. The isolation assists in keeping any problem out of sight, and aids in dehumanizing “them.” This is a problem certainly, and in fairness for the officers put in a system designed for the results we’ve seen.
Now that there’s been a commitment to close the detention center, we must think of a responsible way to shut down Riker’s Island. While it could mean new facilities, it doesn’t necessitate it. A combination of pre-trial tools and policies and existing penitentiaries could suffice. Not to mention the ongoing positive shift to investing in a preventative paradigm.
People like to say the criminal justice system is broken, however, in actuality the system is working how it was designed to work. It’s a part of the foundation of this country.
A simple reminder made today by reporter Mara Gay who reminded us that “Rikers Island bears the name of Richard Riker, the city recorder who sent blacks back to slavery in the south without fair trial.” Fortunately, there’s always been people pushing back on the immoral construct from the beginning.
I applaud the Administration for confronting the Rikers issue. Oftentimes its easier to put a controversial issue on the back burner, than to deal with it front and center.
I remain hopeful that as a legislative body, we will be able to work together to break the culture of mass incarceration in our City.
Jumaane Williams is the Council member for the 45th District of the New York City Council.