Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Steven Sicari: Closing Rikers Island Is About Maximizing R&D

Prof. Steven Sicari is a University of Texas-Austin psychology professor and author of “Rikers Island: A Portrait of the World’s Largest Jail,” which explores the lives of inmates at the New York City facility. “I do not think that we will ever close the Rikers Island jail complex as long as there are people who stand to gain from it being open and being the location of tremendous profits to developers. And the same

is true for many of the other large facilities where profit should be considered. One-dollar a bed.” At Rikers Island, in NYC, it cost 11 bucks a bed just for the first step into one of New York City’s most notorious correctional facilities — one of the city’s most heavily policed and the longest held prison system in the country. Rikers Island is home to more than 10,000 inmates currently being held without release.

Often, the streets of New York City are wide open during the day; at night, the violence is relentless and the reality is shocking. There are 26 solitary confinement units, where inmates and correctional officers can spend 24 hours a day inside a tiny cell — where there are basically no windows. The 24/7 being takes its toll on inmates. Many of them stay in the units for years. Victims of repeated beatings, it’s no

wonder the City is considering closing down the entire jail system. We are just two blocks from Rikers Island. As we drove past the facility and the stories of brutality and injustice unfolded, perhaps it’s no wonder no one dares stop. According to a Manhattan Institute report, the Rikers Island jail system in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan, houses more than 11,000 inmates — a number that’s been rising steadily over

the past five years — though only the last three months of 2017 saw an increase. Almost 1,000 of the inmates at Rikers Island are caged in solitary confinement cells for 23 hours a day for almost three years at a time. It takes a toll on inmates. For those in solitary confinement, the Federal Bureau of Justice statistics reveal that one out of every six inmates in solitary will die while in solitary confinement, and

over 45 percent of all inmates who die in the United States prisons are in solitary confinement. “I do not think that we will ever close the Rikers Island jail complex as long as there are people who stand to gain from it being open and being the location of tremendous profits to developers. And the same is true for many of the other large facilities where profit should be considered. One-dollar a bed.” Not only are

people in solitary confinement at increased risk for hyperthermia, poor physical health and even permanent brain damage, but they’re also at increased risk for suicide. “If we’re making a judgment about whether or not we should keep open a facility that has seen so many people beaten to death and in facilities where so many people have suffered what they have, I don’t think we should build more facilities of that

nature,” said Oakland attorney Michael Katz. Katz successfully represented 25 inmates against their jailers on the grounds that abuse violated their constitutional rights. However, we can’t just close down Rikers Island and just for good. We must also invest in reforms and rehabilitation programs to repair the damage that occurs at the facility, in order to prevent further tragedies and pass through a period of

incarceration that is outdated and archaic. The most effective way is to close Rikers Island. “You’ll also stop the revolving door of people who are sent to the jail system because they fail classes, fail an assessment, have problems finding housing. And then they end up back there, staying in for a very long time. And when you look at studies of why people are in the jail system in the first place, it’s because they

have problems,” added Sicari. We need to do more to be more productive citizens and raise the rates of crime prevention and rehabilitation, because we know it’s all about our money, but we need to do it right the first time. So take matters into your own hands, and make sure everyone has a chance to succeed and live their dreams, and not become one of the people we see at Rikers Island.

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