A month after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the closure of one of Rikers Island’s detention centers by this summer, grass-roots activists who powered the movement said fundamental change in criminal justice policies require reform of the bail system.
The creation of “a fairer, more just pretrial system that ends money bail” is critical to long-term change in New York State, according to a Jan. 30 “victory” rally held at the New York Society for Ethical Cultural in Manhattan.
“No one should be held just because they can’t come up with the money for bail,” activist Marilyn Reyes-Scales said at the rally. “It’s become a ransom people have to pay to get out of jail.”
Pointing out that almost 70 percent of the people held in New York State jails have not been convicted, Reyes-Scales said, “This isn’t Monopoly—they’re playing with real people’s lives!”
The Jan. 2 announcement was that the George Motchan Detention Center, which currently houses nearly 600 men, will be the first of Rikers’ nine jails to shut its doors later this year. It’s the first step in a phased closing down of the jail complex that’s projected to take 10 years.
Often ranked as one of the 10 worst jails in America, Rikers Island, which now houses about 6,800 people and at its most overcrowded held 20,000, was the target of the #CLOSErikers campaign, which grew in strength as it organized rallies and marches beginning in 2016—including a march in September 2016 on the bridge leading to the 400-acre island itself, which sits in the East River between Queens and the Bronx.
There have been complaints of civil-rights violations, corruption, violence, and excessive use of force at the jail.
Closing down the jail with a long record of abuses was the group’s goal, one which received crucial support last year from the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, also known as the Lippman Commission because it was chaired by former Chief New York State Judge Jonathan Lippman.
“The time has come to close Rikers Island,” co-wrote Judge Lippman and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in a widely read New York Times article following the report’s release.
Rikers, a “de facto penal colony” and a “stain on our great city’s reputation,” has problems “that run too deep” to be “fixed with a fresh coat of paint, new trainings or even a major facilities overhaul,” they wrote.
At the Ethical Cultural rally, speakers exulted over Mayor de Blasio’s post-Lippman-commission announcement that it would now be “the official policy of the city of New York to close Rikers Island,” while pointing out the earlier instances when “he tried to hide from us,” and stressing that 10 years is way too long to wait.
“We demanded (that) the world see the hell that was on that island,” said community activist Shanequa Charles, claiming their campaign “changed the national conversation about criminal justice.”
But speakers said Rikers’ documented miseries are only one part of the problem with criminal justice in New York State.
City Comptroller Scott Stringer decried the “commercial bail industry” and said, “Judges play a role in this—there are more humane ways to treat people. A judge can change a person’s life. We need to hold judges accountable.”
As they push for an accelerated closure of Rikers Island, leaders of the grass-roots campaign said they will look to Governor Andrew Cuomo in his next budget to “commit to ending mass incarceration in New York and include gold standard bail, speedy trial and discovery law reform proposals.”
“Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” said Brandon J. Holmes, the #CLOSErikers campaign coordinator.
“Probation and parole are tools that the criminal justice system has used to target my community,” said Vidal Guzman, JustLeadershipUSA Community Organizer.
“These are traps that keep fueling a cycle of criminalization and poverty across our city and state. I know from my own experience on parole how much we need to change these systems. That is why we’ll keep organizing directly impacted communities that can bring attention to the need for reforms that limit probation and parole sentences and use the least restrictive versions of supervision whenever it is used.”
Nancy Bilyeau is Deputy Editor (Digital) of The Crime Report. She welcomes readers comments.