New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, citing the recommendations of an independent advisory commission, has announced a plan to close the troubled Rikers Island jail complex within the next decade.

By Nathan James

The notorious penal colony, which sits between Queens and The Bronx in the East River, has been plagued by recurrent inmate abuse, violence, and corruption in recent years, and public outcry over these issues led to the committee’s review, said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. “This has been a long time coming,” the Speaker said,” and I’m pleased to say we’ve got an accord with City Hall on this.”

The city plans, Mayor Bill DeBlasio stated, to replace Rikers Island’s ten jails with smaller facilities in each borough. “New York City will close Rikers Island,” the mayor pledged, “it will take years, and many tough decisions along the way. But it will happen.”

Kalief Browder

Rikers Island was pushed into the national spotlight by the case of Kalief Browder, a Bronx teen who was wrongfully accused of stealing a backpack. Browder, just 16 at the time of his incarceration on the island, was held for three years in the notorious prison, two of them in solitary confinement. He later committed suicide at 22, having never recovered from the psychological trauma of his imprisonment.

The case, depicted in a documentary produced by megastar Jay-Z, exposed the “deep-seated culture of violence” at the Robert N. Davoren Center (RNDC), the adolescent jail at Rikers where Browder was placed. Inmates there often sustained severe injuries, including “broken jaws, broken noses, broken orbital bones, long bone fractures, and severe lacerations,” according to former federal prosecutor Preet Bharara, whose office investigated the prison.

For many years, gay-bashings were so severe on Rikers Island that LGBT inmates had to be incarcerated in “gay housing”, for protection from the “general population”. The city ended that policy in 2005, however, requiring all new LGBT inmates or detainees to apply for protective custody at a special hearing, corrections officers and former inmates say.

These inmates are restricted to their cells 23 hours a day, exactly like inmates in “punitive segregation”, or solitary confinement. One anonymous gay prisoner who served time in Rikers’ largest jail, C95, told Gawker that, “Rikers’ culture in general doesn’t like homosexuality, but forcible gay sex is OK,” and noted that the corrections officers often ignored the rapes and beatings that occurred. “Both times I was jumped, there were guards present. Most of the guards come from the projects. They’ve grown up next door to the inmates.”

Today’s LGBT inmates must therefore choose between suffering the torturous conditions associated with prolonged solitary confinement, or risking injury or death among the general population. No policy decision has been reached, city officials say, on how or where LGBT inmates will be housed once Rikers Island closes.

Rikers Island first opened in 1932, and in recent years, has seen its inmate population decline, even as violent incidents and in-house fatalities have climbed. DeBlasio said the city will work to improve conditions for inmates and corrections officers alike. “The mass incarceration era did not begin in New York City,” the mayor promised, “but it will end here.” Enhanced educational programs for prisoners, coupled with better safety measures for guards in “community-based” facilities is the goal, DeBlasio said. “We wil make progress towards a more just criminal justice system.”