Shut It Down: Community Calls for Closure of Notorious Jail

Community members asked New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to close the Rikers Island jail complex.
The buildings of the jail at Rikers Island. (Photo: Chip East/Reuters)
Apr 14, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

It would cost too much. It would be a logistical nightmare. Someone has to keep an eye out for the taxpayers. These were the reasons New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio offered in February when he rejected a call from community members and elected officials to shut down Rikers Island, the city jail that’s become notorious for violence and corruption. On Thursday, a coalition of formerly incarcerated people, their family members, and advocates gathered on the steps of City Hall to urge de Blasio to reconsider his stance.

“We are not going away. We are just getting started,” Glenn Martin, president of criminal justice reform organization JustLeadershipUSA, told the crowd, who chanted, “Rikers, Rikers—shut it down!”

Martin, who was incarcerated at Rikers Island at the age of 16 and again at 23, told TakePart that the protest’s goal was to put the voices of community members front and center.

“The conversations to close Rikers in the past have mostly been led by elected officials and people in elite spaces,” he said. “The community’s voices haven’t been heard.”

Xena Grandichelli, who spent four months on Rikers Island, speaks at City Hall. (Photo: Rebecca McCray)

The decrepit jail complex, which houses roughly 10,000 people on an island in the East River, has come under heightened scrutiny in recent years. What critics describe as a deeply engrained culture of brutality and neglect has left inmates and staff injured, dead, and scarred. At City Hall on Thursday, Xena Grandichelli described for the crowd her experience while incarcerated for four months at Rikers in 2014 and 2015.

“I’m one of the survivors,” Grandichelli told TakePart after the protest ended. “I was beaten until I can’t barely move at the hands of seven corrections officers, raped, and left bleeding in a cell. The [corrections officers] on the island feel they’re above the law.”

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In February, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito addressed the jail’s failures in her State of the City address and announced the creation of a commission that would review the city’s entire criminal justice system. The commission is led by a former chief judge of the state of New York, Jonathan Lippman. “For too long, Rikers has stood not for more justice but for revenge,” said Mark-Viverito. “We must explore how we can get the population of Rikers to be so small that the dream of shutting it down becomes a reality.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo quickly spoke out in support of the jail’s closure after Mark-Viverito floated the idea, though his influence over the fate of a city correctional facility is limited.

Suggestions for next steps include relocating the people incarcerated on the island to smaller facilities within the five boroughs that could be more closely monitored. The jail’s location, accessible only by car or bus, poses a time-consuming challenge for any visitors of the complex reliant on public transportation.

On Thursday, DNAinfo New York published documents provided to the city’s first deputy mayor titled Alternatives for Rikers Island that detail the prospect of building two new jails, one in Queens and one in the Bronx. Just last week, de Blasio publicly denied accusations by the publication that his administration was considering closing the jail, standing by his position that it would be too costly and logistically impossible.

Those on the steps of City Hall were undeterred by de Blasio’s pragmatism.

When asked what the coalition proposed as an alternative in the face of the expense and strategic complexity of shuttering the complex, Martin told TakePart the coalition was not offering “a blueprint but a set of principles. The mechanics of shutting down the jail are less important than the morals that get us to the finish line.”