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  • Sarah Pape

'Some things cannot be fixed': Rikers Island and pretrial detention

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

Kalief Browder was only 16 years old when he was arrested and incarcerated. He was held in solitary confinement for almost two years out of a total three-year period of incarceration at Rikers Island after he was accused of stealing a backpack. Browder professed his innocence and refused to accept a plea bargain. His family could not afford his $3,000 bail, so Browder endured unspeakable beatings by guards and while in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, was deprived of human touch and decency. Prosecutors later dropped his charges due to a lack of evidence after they lost contact with his accuser, the only witness to the alleged crime. Browder spent three years in subhuman conditions waiting for a trial that never happened. In 2015, three years after his release from pretrial detention, Browder took his own life at the age of 22. His unnecessary death and unjust incarceration gave voice to longstanding calls to shut down Rikers Island and more broadly, to end or severely reform the concept of pretrial detention.

Rikers Island is New York’s main jail complex only a few miles from LaGuardia airport and the ultra-expensive neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Containing 10 jails capable of housing 15,000 people, Rikers is the world’s largest penal colony, with an entry sign boasting the tag “New York City’s Boldest.” As of August 2022, 5,888 people were in custody throughout New York City, 5,077 of them detained awaiting trial. The comptroller’s data collection shows rising numbers of detentions and deaths in custody, putting 2022 on track to be Riker’s deadliest year since 2013. Over the years, the conditions for humans at Rikers have only worsened, increasing the calls from former corrections staff, incarcerated persons and activists alike, for Rikers to close.

Eighteen people have died this year at Rikers Island. Most died from suicide, addiction and inadequate or delayed medical care due to the lack of minimum amount of care or supervision. The death toll may be even higher, as the New York Department of Corrections does not add deaths occurring after compassionate release towards their official in-custody death total. As prosecutors file charges and request bail, they send more and more individuals to an overcrowded and understaffed facility without access to adequate sanitation or healthcare, where they are held in a ‘decontamination shower’ for hours and forced to sleep on the floor. #HALTSolitary and the Campaign to Close Rikers, alongside other individuals and organizations, calls for Rikers’ immediate closure. More broadly, they advocate for an end to pretrial detention as a subjugation tool in our criminal legal system. In contrast, the city has an unclear plan to close Rikers within the next five years and transfer all incarcerated persons to borough jails.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a speedy trial, but pretrial detention mandates that some legally innocent individuals await trial in jail systems around our country. For New Yorkers, it takes an average of 10 months in pretrial custody before they ever see a courtroom. Many of these people are detained due to an inability to pay cash bail. Racial disparities in cash bail aggravate disparities in pretrial detention as Black individuals are 11.2% more likely to be given cash bail than white individuals. Like most aspects of our criminal legal system, the harms of pretrial detention fall squarely and disproportionately on those without the financial means to pay their bail. The average bail imposed in New York starts at $1,000 for misdemeanors and $5,000 for felonies, while 80% of those involved with our criminal legal system are legally indigent persons, incapable of affording the basic necessities of life, let alone thousands of dollars in cash bail.

The calls for closing Rikers are loud, but they fall on closed ears as local politicians have vague, if not illusory, plans to close Rikers by 2027 or 2028. New York City plans to transfer incarcerated persons at Rikers to one of four still-to-be-built jails in each borough except Staten Island. While the New York City Council has voted in favor of this plan, New York Mayor Eric Adams promotes improving the culture within city jails, but he has yet to clearly state his plan to close Rikers and transfer people into smaller, less-crowded jails. Mayor Adams is unwilling to approve certain future jail sites yet refuses to further delay the timeline for closing Rikers. Many New Yorkers, attorneys and activists calling for an end to the death sentence that is Rikers Island stated that Adams’ behavior is purposely obtuse—a way of refusing to explicitly state his unwillingness to close Rikers by purposely keeping plans to rebuild and transfer unclear and never-ending. Adams even said he doubts that they would meet the 2027/2028 deadline as Rikers was “full of violent criminals who couldn’t safely be let out.” More than 80% of the humans living on Rikers Island are in pretrial detention, waiting for their constitutional right to a speedy trial to finally be exercised.

Every human being who enters Rikers Island or any of our country’s jails is a person worthy of dignity and respect. Waiting for trial should not be a death sentence. Browder’s story and the abuses and tragedies occurring without oversight at Rikers Island and throughout our country’s jails continually renew the movement towards human-centered reform and abolition of facets of our criminal legal system and the carceral complexes that contribute. Time will tell if our politicians feel the need to implement human-centric reform and legislation through ending pretrial detention and cash bail, so that not one more human being will die under the watchful eye of the State.

Emmanuel Sullivan (20). Dashawn Carter (25). Gilberto Garcia (26). Antonio Bradley (28). Erick Tavira (28). Mary Yehudah (31). Elijah Muhammad (31). Michael Lopez (34). Kevin Bryan (35). Tarz Youngblood (38). Anibal Carrasquillo (39). Edgardo Mejias (39). Michael Nieves (40). Gregory Acevedo (48). George Pagan (49). Herman Diaz (52). Albert Drye (52). Elmore Robert Pondexter (59). Ricardo Cruciani (68).


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