Rikers Will Close, but No Time Soon

Victoria Wenger
Prison Reform and Education Project (PREP)

On June 22, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio released a 51-page report detailing the city’s intention to close down the Rikers Island jail complex. In his letter introducing the plan, the Mayor conceded that the effort to close down Rikers facilities will be no “quick fix,” but rather a “long and difficult path,” which is projected to take as long as a decade.

The Mayor’s intent to close the notorious jail complex was first announced in late March. Celebration by those leading the campaigns to close Rikers dissipated as details of the protracted plan were revealed. Organizers and impacted community members contend that the plan does not show enough urgency to eliminate abuses on the island or offer sustainable alternatives to ensure the rights and safety of detained people.

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Victoria Wenger

“New Yorkers at Rikers – mostly black and brown – continue to suffer in deplorable conditions and face routine human rights abuses,” said Glenn E. Martin, president and founder of JustLeadershipUSA and a leader of the #CLOSErikers movement, “Changes must be made to ensure that people detained at Rikers are in a safe and humane environment until closure is possible.”

The ongoing process to close Rikers Island, and the simultaneous mobilizing efforts to expedite its closure and address the needs of people detained there in the interim, provide unique circumstances for New York City law students to engage with criminal justice law outside the confines of lecture halls. Law students in the United States, and certainly those at the multiple law schools in the New York metro area, are required to take a criminal law course as part of the core doctrinal curriculum. Yet these courses, often taught exclusively through the study of prior court decisions, rarely explore the lived experiences of criminal defendants beyond the brief facts written in case holdings. NYU Law students in particular have the opportunity to bridge this divide by working directly with people who are currently, or were formerly, incarcerated at Rikers.

In collaboration with the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project, NYU Law students can interview people who have been placed in solitary confinement, record their statements, and present them to the NYC Board of Corrections.

“I can’t imagine being beaten by officers, chained hand and foot to a table for four hours a day, and often being denied essential medication, while awaiting trial on an isolated island with no one to see or hear my cries for help,” said Shaina Watrous, a rising 2L at NYU Law. “For the young man awaiting trial, who I interviewed through PREP’s Solitary Confinement Project, this horror was his reality.”

Other law students can learn about the hurdles people face following incarceration by working in partnership with students at St. Francis College in Brooklyn who were formerly incarcerated and are now pursuing undergraduate degrees. And any student can follow, learn from, or even lend support to, the #closeRIKERS campaign.

Unless current plans change, Rikers Island will remain open during the full duration of law school for any student beginning their legal education in New York City this year, and for years to come. While the need to close the infamous jails remains urgent, the process towards that end provides a unique opportunity to learn from the experiences of people who continue to be detained there. The decade ahead is a critical time for people within the legal field to learn from those most impacted by it.

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