Unchecked violence and sickness have routinely defined the experience of those incarcerated at Rikers Island. Connected by a single bridge to the island’s south, the sprawling jail complex is largely removed from the daily lives of New Yorkers. But in recent years, the extent of the brutality has become more widely known: Regular beatings by guards have severely debilitated detainees; years of solitary confinement have driven some to suicide; and sexual abuse — coupled with sinister indifference by those in charge — darken the accounts of those damned to the island on the East River.
The individual suffering and harm, accumulating over decades and affecting hundreds of thousands of people, their loved ones, and their communities, is the product of a system of criminalization on the basis of race, poverty, and mental health. That low-income Black and brown communities make up the majority of those imprisoned on Rikers — often for minor, first-time offences — underscores the racism and classism of the carceral system, which feeds into the toxic culture of the jails. The institution’s very foundations — a noxious mix of garbage, ash, street sweepings, and industrial refuse — are further evidence of Rikers’ widespread toxicity. Reports of methane leaks affecting the health of prisoners and staff, as well as the structural integrity of the buildings, have circulated for years.
Arguing that “torture island” was beyond repair, activists in the movement to Close Rikers scored a historic victory in 2017, when the city committed to ceasing operations on the island within ten years. While different proposals have been floated for the site’s reuse, including an extension of LaGuardia airport, none have the wider support garnered by “Renewable Rikers,” a bold scheme tying reparative justice to environmental justice. The proposal, growing out of recommendations by CUNY Law School’s Center for Urban Environmental Reform, and championed in the City Council by Costa Constantinides, advocates for a renewable energy hub on the island. Battery storage, wind and solar farms, and a wastewater treatment plant, along with green space and a memorial, would rise on the island when the jails are finally torn down.
At the proposal’s heart is a recognition that survivors of Rikers Island overwhelmingly come from Environmental Justice (EJ) communities, which are both overpoliced and overpolluted. A “Renewable Rikers” strives to dismantle two interconnected systems of oppression at once. The new energy and waste infrastructure would make it possible to close peaker power plants and shift heavily trafficked trucking routes away from EJ communities in the Bronx and Queens, offering relief from the pall of pollution that has hung over them for decades. The hub would also generate new, green jobs, helping the city meet its ambitious sustainability goals, and potentially provide formerly incarcerated individuals with training in the industry.
The City Council passed the Renewable Rikers Act in February 2021, formally transferring administration of the land, buildings, and jails on the island away from the Department of Correction, and directing the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability to undertake a study to determine the feasibility of battery storage and different kinds of renewable sources there. Yet, questions remain unresolved about the city’s commitment to ensuring social harms are not repeated. Will the highly visible “greening” of the island work to erase the culpability of the city, which for so long, turned a blind eye to the bodies under its care? A plan to replace Rikers with smaller jails in four boroughs could undermine the benefits generated by the restorative reuse of the island. It is unclear if the island’s “toxic” conditions will be cleaned up, so to speak, by the disassembly of its carceral architecture and the reassembly of it elsewhere.