When he first launched the effort to shut down the notorious Rikers Island jail, criminal justice reform advocate Glenn Martin didn’t have that much support.
“It was a lonely place when I first said it out loud,” said Martin, 46, founder and CEO of JustLeadership USA, a non-profit whose goal is to cut the U.S. prison population in half by 2030. He first broached the idea with Bill de Blasio in 2014 shortly after he was elected as mayor of New York City.
“When we said we would convince the mayor to close Rikers, people said: ‘Never,’” Martin told NewsOne in an interview.
So when de Blasio announced a month ago that he was finally on board with the idea of shutting down the jail over the next decade after two years of calling the concept too expensive and too complicated, one might think Martin would claim victory and close up shop.
Report after report has called the island, named for a man who, as a judge, shipped free Blacks into slavery in the South, a dangerous place, even a “torture island.” In 2014, then U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said adolescents detained at the jail faced a “systematic culture of violence.” Another report found that Rikers failed miserably in dealing with sexual abuse against inmates.
The prison, which currently houses just under 10,000 people, mostly from a few black and Latino New York City neighborhoods, is a symbol of all that is wrong with this country’s failed experiment with mass incarceration, said Martin. Nine out of 10 people housed in city jails on any given day is black or Latino. Almost 80 percent of those on Rikers Island are awaiting trial. And violence on the island has continued to climb even as the population has declined, according to a report by Comptroller Scott Stringer.
For all of those reasons, says Martin, advocates aren’t going to wait a decade to close the jail.
“The victory was to just get the public shift on closing Rikers. It was a good first step. That’s all we have now,” said Martin, who launched the #CLOSErikers campaign. “But if this mayor thinks making this announcement will make us back off, he’s wrong. This announcement does not mean another decade of black and brown bodies suffering on Rikers.”
For Martin, the idea of “black and brown bodies suffering at Rikers” is not just some clever rallying cry. As a 16-year-old shipped to the island jail complex 30 years ago for shoplifting, Martin says he was stabbed on his second day there.
“Closing Rikers is hardly about shuttering one facility. People should see the Rikers announcement as the ability to think more boldly about mass incarceration,” Martin said.
But in not moving to best the decade long timeline for closing Rikers, the city is failing current and future inhabitants, Martin added. That includes people like Kalief Browder who spent three abusive years on Rikers awaiting trial for allegedly stealing a backpack.
Browder faced beatings from both guards and others being held at the jail while also spending much of his time there in solitary confinement. Browder’s bail was $3,000 which his family couldn’t afford. Less than a year after his eventual release, and without ever being convicted of the crime he was charged with, Browder committed suicide.
“How many Kalief Browder’s could there be in 10 years,” Martin said.
De Blasio has said closing the jail won’t be an easy task.
“Now, I emphasize, this will not happen overnight. This is going to take a lot of work. There is not quick fix here and anyone who says there is a quick fix isn’t being honest,” de Blasio said at a March 31 press conference at City Hall trumpeting his change of heart.
Natalie Grybauskas, a spokeswoman for de Blasio, told NewsOne the mayor would like to see the jail closed “as soon as possible” but there are obstacles such as bringing down the jail population.
The city believes a decade is also feasible because the Lippman Commission, launched by New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and headed by former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, called it a “realistic” timeline “for getting off the island,” in their recently released report. Martin was a prominent member of the commission.
The Lippman Commission’s report calls for closing Rikers in favor of five borough-based jails with a capacity to hold 5,500 people. The new jails would cost $11 billion. In order for that to happen, the city’s jail population, which has been cut in half to 10,000 people since 1990, would have to decrease by half again.
Lippman Commission Report on Closing Rikers Island by jcm23 on Scribd
The new jails would be closer to courthouses, saving time and reducing transportation costs. They could also be designed to keep correction officers and those serving their sentence and awaiting trial at the jail, safer. The city could save a minimum of $1.6 billion by reducing the jail population due to decreased staff costs and transportation costs. It costs $270,000 per year to keep an individual in jail in the city.
The obstacles to closing the jail are numerous. The city would have to eliminate the number of people coming into the system by providing alternatives to incarceration, eliminating short and ineffectual sentences, and doing away with cash bail. But perhaps the biggest impediment to eliminating what the report calls the “penal colony model” of Rikers Island is the process of creating five jails in the boroughs.
“We know from hard experience that Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) opposition can pose a significant challenge for projects like these,” the report reads.
De Blasio is currently experiencing what it might be like to try and build new jails because of opposition to his plan to build 90 new borough-based homeless shelters.
That’s why Martin has now focused on reducing the timeline to close Rikers by getting New York City Council members to drop their resistance and trying to find a way to smooth the land review process. Martin also wants Gov. Andrew Cuomo to provide more than verbal support to the idea of shutting Rikers as soon as possible. The 10 years planned by the commission to close Rikers is a “political timeline” that can be shifted with political pressure, says Martin.
At a recent rally in front of New York City Hall, Martin and his group called for de Blasio to begin taking concrete steps to close Rikers such as formulating a specific plan, naming someone at City Hall to lead the effort, and implementing the criminal justice reforms that would help reduce the number of people held at the jail.
Martin is no stranger to confronting de Blasio about closing Rikers. Before de Blasio announced his support for closing the jail, Martin’s organization traveled to the mayor’s fundraiser in Florida to protest.
“It’s our job to make sure he can’t avoid this during an election year,” Martin said. “The timeline to close Rikers needs to be as soon as possible. Ten years is just too long.”
Jeffery C. Mays is a contributing writer for NewsOne, specializing in politics and news about missing persons in conjunction with the Black and Missing Foundation. Jeff is the former New York City politics reporter for DNAinfo New York and also a former reporter for the Star-Ledger in New Jersey. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Root, and Wired magazine. Jeff is the recipient of reporting awards from the New York Press Club, the Center for Community and Ethnic Media and the National Association of Black Journalists. Follow him on Twitter at @JeffCMays.