The Closing of Rikers: a Survival Strategy of the Carceral State


On Friday, March 31, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio advocated the closure of the city’s notorious Rikers Island facilities. The mayor’s decision comes on the heels of a rise in political scrutiny surrounding Rikers. A 2015 civil case resulted in increased federal oversight within the facilities, and stricter measures regarding the use of force. Despite the DOJ’s intervention, at least 35 staffers have faced criminal charges over the last three years.

We recognize that local jail reform activists have a vision beyond the closure of Rikers, and see this as a step forward in their greater plan of bail reform, decriminalization of their communities, and ending mass incarceration. However, setting aside the likelihood of the Lippman Commission’s plan for the closure actually even being fully executed, this move from the establishment is part of an ideological, political and development strategy. It is just the most recent example of the state successfully shifting public opinion without creating actual systemic change. Like realignment in California and the federal order to end private prisons, both of which just moved prisoners around, the Rikers closure is a well-designed smokescreen. It recuperates the political stability and palatability of incarceration while leaving intact all of its violence, injustice, and tragedy.

The Plan

Over the course of the last year, de Blasio has been one of increasingly few defenders of the facilities. His change of heart preempted Sunday’s release of a 97-page report produced by an independent commision headed by former chief judge Jonathan Lippman. The Lippman Commission has spent the last year trawling data, producing a plan for criminal justice and incarceration reform in New York that is centered on the closure of Rikers. Per the Commission’s report, titled A More Just New York City, closing Rikers would take at least ten years, and involves the construction of a new jail in each borough of the city. Construction of these state-of-the-art new facilities would constitute a 10.6 billion dollar project.

Currently, the ten facilities on Rikers Island are home to over three quarters of New York City’s incarcerated population. Thus its closure will require the city to cut its incarcerated population in half, from around 10,000 to below 5,500. This is to be accomplished, according to the commission’s recommendations, through diversion programs, pre-trial supervision, simplified bail, and raising the age of criminal responsibility. Proponents of the new jails argue that their benefits will include safer conditions for inmates and COs, easier visitation, transportation savings (the facilities will be adjacent to the courthouses that they serve), and also according to the report, will ultimately save the city $1.6 billion annually.

Thus, we see, the closing of the Rikers Island facilities is a strategic position taken by a popular progressive politician in an election year. It is ostensibly motivated by the political weight of the Lippman Commission’s report. However, it is important to understand the historical place of this move, as it plays a larger role in the state’s maintenance of control through carceral violence.

Money in Motion

The substantial material motivations of the Rikers closure are profit-driven from several angles. First, the island is prime real estate; development of an airstrip is being explored, plus surrounding and connected development. The Lippman Commission report makes vague reference to each of these development potentials. Given the housing economy in New York, it is easy to see that the land Rikers’ ten facilities sit on is a gold mine for local developers. Second, each site of the new jails will constitute a financial windfall for the city and local investors. How? The city/county will finance these projects through bonds. These bonds are a special kind of financial instrument. They are backed by the “full faith and credit” of the state. This means that they are zero risk investments for the finance capitalists who will be investing in this project. When and if the city reaches the point of planning and financing, it is likely that $10.6 billion will in actuality become a much greater sum. This will result in the necessity for emergency bonds, which will prove even more lucrative.

As we well know, prisons and jails function primarily as part of a system of social control. What we are less apt to recognize is that they also function as investment opportunities for finance capital; part of a ubiquitous flow of money from communities and cities into the hands of private investment firms. Thus the financial burden of prison infrastructure, in this case the new borough jails, is offset and shifted on to the taxpayer and the community at large. The community, mind you, that now has a brand new jail in it, perpetually signifying and reinforcing the universality of carceral control. Not only are Black, Brown and poor white people locked up and strangled as a class, we are also saddled with the cost of that control through convoluted subsidization to the financial sector, landholders, and developers, as well as through austerity.

Reform at Work in California

From the perspective of abolitionists operating in California, we see the Rikers closure as part of a highly effective appeasement strategy. In moments of rising public consciousness about injustice, the state engages in such strategies with the goal of recuperating public complicity. We saw this recently in California’s ‘prisoner realignment.’

Since the 1980s, California has seen an explosion in its incarcerated population due to a variety of legislative moves, most notably its unforgiving ‘three strikes’ law, mandating life sentences for three-time felony convictions. Overcrowding and systemic neglect were a natural result. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the California system was so overcrowded it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The case (Edmund G. Brown, Jr., Governor of California, et al., Appellants v. Marciano Plata et al., May 2011) centered on shortage of health care treatment, which in many cases, amounted to outright denial of mental and physical treatment. An average of one inmate per week was dying as a result these conditions. Among other things, the decision required the state to reduce the prison population (then 168,000) by 30,000.

The state’s solution was to pass the Public Safety and Realignment Initiative (AB109) in October of that year. Rather than providing a viable solution, this legislation shifted overcrowding to county facilities, a process referred to as ‘prisoner realignment.’ This legislation, in tandem with a reform to ‘three strikes’ the following year, and the ‘Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act’ (Prop 47) of 2014, created a sufficient picture of progress. Thanks to realignment, Merced county, for example, was able to report an increase in early releases while the average daily population of its two jails remained constant. They continue to operate at 113-146% of their approved capacity. In 2016, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation even had the audacity to boast a drastic decrease in the state’s recidivism rate over three years; but CDCR being California’s state prison system, this data was wholly blind to the drastic increase in people housed in county facilities.

Simply  put, realignment was an illusion. Data framing and statistical shades create a false picture of reform by hiding the numbers in other systems. The casual observer finds in realignment all of the trappings of real change and systemic reform — and thus political pressure is alleviated. Meanwhile, in reality, the rate and conditions of incarceration remain the same, or even in many cases worsen. Pretrial detainees in Merced county lament that they would rather be in state facilities where there are a variety of programs available. Many county facilities are unable even to maintain regular AA meetings.

We remain highly critical of the de Blasio administration’s recent political shift, because, to us, it smells the same. Rikers is an institution so legendary in its institutional violence that its maintenance and defense has simply become politically untenable. Its closure, however, changes nothing of substance. This tactic of political subterfuge can actually be seen more easily in the case of the Rikers Island closure than in California’s realignment strategy.

The Use of the Kalief Browder Story

The Rikers Island facilities gained increased scrutiny in recent years through the tragic case of Kalief Browder, a Black teenager who spent three years in jail for allegedly stealing a backpack. During his time at Rikers, Browder was repeatedly beaten and harassed by COs and other inmates, and spent most of his long ordeal in solitary confinement. While incarcerated, Browder also attempted suicide at least 5 times, and was never given psychiatric care. Having maintained his innocence and never been tried nor convicted, he was released in 2013, shortly after his 20th birthday. Painful trauma surrounding his confinement stuck with him, and on June 8, 2015 he took his own life.

Browder’s case would later become the rhetorical center of a movement to reform criminal justice practices in New York. Mayor de Blasio responded to this case by advocating reform in trial procedure, and eventually ending punitive solitary confinement for teenagers. “The death of Kalief Browder was a wake-up call to this city,” de Blasio said. “The number one reason we lost Kalief Browder was because he was held in solitary confinement… and that doesn’t exist anymore.” To city officials, Browder’s case illuminated the atrociously violent conditions of the facilities on Rikers Island, but not the routine criminalization and violence enacted against Black and Brown people, and not the nightmare of incarceration in general. Their strategy and rhetoric shows this clearly.

Browder took his life in the same summer that Michael Brown was murdered by police in Ferguson, Missouri, sparking the wave of uprising that birthed the Black Lives Matter movement. Race and the criminal justice system became increasingly present in popular consciousness. More recently, documentaries like 13th and the forthcoming Kalief Browder Inc. continue to force discussion of white supremacy, and to expose the american system of policing and prisons as an extension of slavery. Thus a political moment arises wherein the closure of the Rikers Island facilities becomes most politically advantageous. The single story of Kalief Browder draws attention not to incarceration, but to Rikers Island. And ultimately its emotional weight becomes something maneuverable to the ideological advantage of political officials. This comes to pass by allowing them to locate systemic violence within this particular institution, thus obscuring its historical necessity as part and parcel to the entire carceral system. As a result, the closing of Rikers is able to signify in the American consciousness a strike against systemic violence, even though it will not result in any change in the conditions and treatment of incarcerated people, and there is no evidence that it will affect rates of incarceration.

In Nov. 2016 Kalief’s brother Akeem Browder told Democracy Now! about the campaign to close Rikers that, “while we’re focused on Rikers what they’re doing is they’re abusing other human beings at other facilities.” In reality, the horrors that Kalief faced are not unique, and are certainly not limited to particular institutions. In the Washoe County Jail in Reno, 13 people have died from either suicide or force exercised by guards in just over two years. Four inmates died in Los Angeles County Jail within nine days just this month. The circumstances of these deaths are kept under wraps. The story of Kalief Browder is not a story about Rikers Island. It is a story about jails and prisons everywhere: a story about the ubiquitous criminalization of Black bodies, and how every facet of the criminal system functions to that end.

When we imagine carceral violence as exceptional and temporary, we are already under a spell. Realignment wove the illusion that carceral violence was a result of bad practice, something that can be fixed with time and electoral politics. The closure of Rikers also perpetuates this fiction, with the added fantasy that carceral violence is specific to the ‘worst’ facilities. But these facilities are not worse. They are the ones that simply happen to have gotten the most attention. Places like Rikers are part of a mythology that the horrors of incarceration are unique to these places that are known for their violence.

This phenomenon becomes perfectly clear in the words of New York City Councilman Daniel Dromm, who says of Rikers Island that, “It has become emblematic of all that is wrong with our criminal justice system.” The simple message at the heart of all this is: when Riker’s is closed all will be well. The rising awareness of racist institutions and systemic violence will then have every reason to recede. If de Blasio’s plan comes to fruition, in fact, there will be a memorial on Rikers Island (surely to be renamed) to commemorate “the legacy of harm inflicted by Rikers Island, especially on people and communities of color.” People will visit this memorial and marvel at our progress, while those very people and communities memorialized continue to face the same atrocious conditions in thousands of nameless facilities across the country. This is how reform operates.

From “All Prisoners are Political Prisoners”:

“The notion that Black political action can be regulated or controlled through an amelioration of material conditions is an old conversation, perhaps the oldest in the world made by imperialism. In every corner of this hemisphere to which our ancestors were brought in chains, slave masters wrote at length about the possibility of preventing rebellion and uprising by providing adequate rations, clothing, rest, and accommodations. A foundational assumption of white supremacy and capitalism is that Black and Indigenous people have no political personhood, and merely react spontaneously to material deprivations. Generations of novelists, scholars, and filmmakers, well into the present, have dutifully replicated the assumptions of slavemasters”

The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee is based in Oakland.