New York City has tackled homelessness for decades with no major resolve. Under Mayor DeBlasio, a new plan targets the destruction of Riker’s Island, a large island of buildings where poor, homeless, disenfranchised people are awaiting trial and justice. What once was designed to endure a speedy process is now jailing tens of thousands of men and women awaiting verdicts of guilt or innocence.
The jails on Riker’s Island remain largely filled with people who have yet to be tried, and those prisoners remain overwhelmingly black and Hispanic and too poor to afford bail, according to a 2017 report from the city’s Independent Budget Office.
The 400+ acre island has about 10 buildings and one infirmary. The average daily inmate population on the island is about 10,000, although it can hold a maximum of 15,000. The daytime population (including staff) can be 20,000 or more. The plan, under the auspices of the Department of Corrections is a projected 8.7 billion dollar plan. The goal is to shutter Riker’s Island, with an ambitious proposal that would replace the island with four borough-based jails by 2026. What failed with housing the homeless is being done for the impoverished in jail.
According to a 2017 article in the Village Voice, the average daily jail population last year was 9,790, of which 78 percent were people awaiting trial. Of those pretrial detainees, 52 percent were black, 33 percent Hispanic, and 10 percent white, the report found. (New York City’s overall population in 2010 was 44 percent white, 28 percent Latino, and 25 percent black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.)
Perhaps one of the most infamous prisons (that is not a prison) is on Riker’s Island in New York City. This is the jail where some unprivileged, arrested, and arraigned New York people await being processed through the judicial system. New York Mayor Bill deBlasio wants to destroy the prisons on Riker’s Island and move them to other city boroughs.
The city Department of Correction is pushing hard to empty a Brooklyn jail by early 2020 to fast-track Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ultimate goal of closing the main lockup on Rikers Island, union officials told The Post. Of course, the Mayor was before he left the US Presidential race.
Those with lawyers usually don’t end up at Riker’s Island. They are processed in other jails. Riker’s Island is the distribution system for the poor, the sick, and awaiting Legal-Aid. It is overcrowded, dangerous, old, and mismanaged. They haven’t been convicted of a crime.
What we call Riker’s Island is thought to be named after Abraham Rycken, a Dutch settler who moved to Long Island in 1638 and whose descendants owned Riker’s Island until 1884, when it was sold to the city for $180,000. The island was used as a military training ground during the Civil War.
Around 1896, Public Charities managed the City’s hospitals and soup kitchens, and the Correction Department controlled penal institutions including the Penitentiary and Workhouse on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island), City Prison, the Manhattan Tombs, the five district prisons and, the City cemetery on Hart Island known as Potter’s Field. In 1898, Brooklyn and Queens were added to New York City, creating a 5 borough network.
Riker’s Island was, like many parts of the city, marsh. Wetlands were pervasive throughout New York City. Landfill was used to help create dry lands. “Sanitary” landfills operate by layering waste in a large hole. Then they are covered with gravel and dirt. Landfill was waste management in the late 1800’s. It was used to connect Coney Island to Brighton Beach in Brooklyn.
In the 1900’s New York had a fetish of using landfills, especially with all its tunnel construction projects for the railroad and subway construction. They also use it to construct NY water tunnels 1 and 2. The side-effect….rats. Rats that loved waste. Overlooked rat eggs hatching in the land. This is why many NYC areas have major rat communities.
In 1931, landfill was used to construct Riker’s Island. Behold, it was rat infested. No safe rodent poison was available. Construction of the jails meant dealing with the rats. Strong, thick concrete foundations helped reduce rodent passage to cells. After nearly 90 years, those cement foundations wore away with little maintenance over years depending on the city’s budget needs.
Cities are important human environments and the proportion of the world’s population living in urban areas has been consistently increasing. The relationship between crime rates and population density is unclear from an intuitive standpoint. It seems likely that crime rates increase as population densities increase. According to the NYC Department of Planning, NYC has the most dense population of any city in the USA. Try riding an NYC bus or train during peak rush hour. There’s hardly any space to sit or stand comfortably.
Proxemics studies how humans create and respond to personal and public territories. Proxemics includes how we interact in our personal territory, physical territory, and geographic territory. There are four different kinds of space in our personal territory: public, social, personal, and intimate.
In dense populations, according to income status, education status, and affordability for “basic” needs, there will be areas with more crime and less crime. Aside from murder, there are burglaries and street crime. Those bent on mugging or stealing create territoriality and times to do their thing. While NYC is seen as 24/7, many streets are best used sunrise to sunset, especially park spaces. Riker’s Island jails are generally overcrowded and poorly staffed. Among desperate poor and sick awaiting trial, lack of spatial and ergonomic jail conditions result in fights, stabbings, drug use, sex abuse and general anger virtually 24/7. Yes, prison behavior in a jail awaiting trial. Add those to being cooped up in a dirty, rotting, rodent infested jail.
According to NYC, the proposed plans include easier ways to pay bail; reduce time people spend in jail by speeding the time that cases take; reduce the number of State parole violators using city jails; provide judges with updated evidence-based tools; replace short sentences with social support programs; expand dedicated housing for people with mental illness; technology expansion; reduction of adolescent and female populations at Riker’s. All reverent goals for a population awaiting trial that must prove guilt. They are innocent by law until guilt is proven.
Provided this proposal goes through, additional spaces within 4 boroughs are being sought for storing the jail populations.
Here lie some problems. Borough perimeters, often considered poor areas, were taken by many NYCHA projects in the 1050’s to 1970’s. Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan now have greenway recreation areas built or in the process of building.
Many neighborhoods in all boroughs have seen an elevation in real-estate values, gentrification, and upscale development. What is the likelihood that residents of rentals, and apartments or homes are going to accept jails constructed nearby?
Mayor Bloomberg once touted plans for the homeless to live on barges.
In addition to New York’s 5 boroughs, New York City contains about 36 to 42 islands in total.These were used for small pox rehab, yellow fever rehab, reform schools, orphanages, insane asylums, and more. Early New York City wisely, before 20th century medicine, kept the ill away from Manhattan by using those islands. New York City recently added Governor’s Island. These islands might better be suited for use for an NYC jail construction. Some still have electricity and water since last used in the 1960’s.
Ward’s Island was the newest of New York State’s psychiatric hospitals, shut in th 1980’s. Today it is part of the city as Manhattan Psychiatric Center. It was built in the 1950’s to replace a structure of the 1860’s, NYC House of Refuge (for the homeless) and became Manhattan State Psychiatric Hospital. This facility, with some progressive rethinking, could be an option as part of the Riker’s Island renovation project.
Ward’s Island is situated near Hart’s Island, almost between Riker’s and Ward’s islands. The city’s current potter’s field, and one of the largest cemeteries in the United States, with at least 800,000 burials, is on Hart Island. There are facilities where Riker’s Island inmates buried the anonymous, unclaimed bodies.
To an outsider, no matter what anyone claims, being jailed is a grim, horrific experience. When you’re poor and have no money for bail and waiting for free legal-aid, being arrested is a frightening mode. In a society where people are considered innocent before proven guilty, there are progressive ways to use the city’s existing areas and facilities (that already exist). It is a more cost-effective and value preserving search to help improve the NYC Jails. New York City’s approaches to handling cases must meet progressive technologies as an example to all others.
I am surprised that our progressive Mayor does not see potential resources for accelerating NYC Jail improvements. The resources are there. Progressive means better living choices for all. For the victims at Riker’s, faster judicial processing and better facilities are a good idea. Using Ward’s Island and part of other uncharted city islands permits faster resolve, without messing lifestyles of neighborhoods and city residents.