The Future of Incarceration in America

How Do You Close One of the Largest Jails in America?

In 2016, a nuclear option arose when it came to Rikers Island, the notorious NYC jail: Shut the whole thing down.

by John Surico
09 December 2016, 5:00am

Illustrations by Dola Sun

For most of its history, the Rikers Island jail complex has been a blight on the conscience of America's largest city.

Rikers opened in 1932 to temporarily relieve the nearby Blackwell Island jail, but quickly became permanent, and controversial. By 1939, a grand jury investigation had found that the complex was already wildly unsanitary and overcrowded. Over time, the sprawling penal colony grew to meet demand, housing more inmates as the city arrested more of its citizens. Yet it has always been troubled by brutal beatdowns and institutionalized corruption, and most reform efforts have been abortive, at best. The jail's population—about 7,600 inmates, as of this writing—ebbs and flows with law enforcement practices on the mainland. So fixing Rikers is not only about salvaging the complex itself, but also untangling the entire criminal justice system of America's largest city.

In 2016, a nuclear option arose: Shut the whole thing down.

In recent months, the idea of closing Rikers Island and replacing it with a series of neighborhood jails picked up some steam. A number of city and state officials have expressed support for the idea—which has been periodically floated in the past—including the city council speaker, New York's governor, the city comptroller, and the mayor's own wife. The head of the city's jails himself even went so far as to say he's "open" to the idea.

Suffice to say the proposition has been seriously discussed in the corridors of city hall (and maybe by some real estate developers, too). Notorious jails like Baltimore City Detention Center and another in Kentucky have closed in the past decade, but these were of much smaller size, and consequence. If a 400-acre island complex with ten separate correctional facilities can be dismantled, Rikers could serve as a case study in downsizing as mass incarceration undergoes fresh scrutiny nationwide.

The only question: How would it work?


Candie Hailey, 32, spent more than two years in solitary confinement at Rikers after being charged with the non-fatal stabbing of a woman's three-month-old baby in 2012. She was acquitted in May 2015, but says she was subject to sexual and mental abuse by correctional officers (COs), who routinely called her a "baby killer," and, she claims, even tore up photographs of her children.

The conditions in her small cell, Hailey told me, were abysmal: spiders, maggots, cockroaches, feces. "The stench alone could make you suicidal," she said.

In a notice of claim she filed against New York City, which is being prepared for inclusion in a lawsuit, Hailey says she tried to kill herself more than 100 times, sometimes using a broken lightbulb to cut her wrists, or swallowing Nair, the hair removal product. She didn't have those thoughts before Rikers, she said, but they haven't left her since.

I died so long ago, I can't believe I'm even here. —Candie Hailey

"I feel like killing myself now," she explained. "It feels like I'm in jail still. It takes control of my life, the way I live, and what I do." She even said a man who raped her as a teenager doesn't deserve this: "I wish him death, I wish him suffering, but I wouldn't wish him a day in solitary. That's how bad it is."

"I died so long ago, I can't believe I'm even here," she continued. "I can't believe stuff like that even goes on."

In a statement to VICE, the city's Department of Correction (DOC) said it was investigating Hailey's claims, and has since closed the case. A spokesperson also referred to recent efforts to reform solitary confinement, which was banned for juveniles last year (although that change was delayed from implementation until this October). The use of the practice itself, the spokesperson added, has dropped 76 percent in the past two years.

Newspaper headlines, investigations, and even a federal lawsuit have ignited reforms at Rikers. But Hailey fears little has been achieved since she left in May 2015 given the glacial pace inside. "Only thing I saw them do was paint the walls," she told me of her time there. In her mind, the alternative to Rikers should be to rehabilitate, not punish. "If you're not guilty yet, you shouldn't be treated like this," she added.

It is stories like Hailey's—and, most famously, that of Kalief Browder, who committed suicide in June 2015 after spending three years on Rikers—that activists cite as the key reason the jail needs to go: It traumatizes inmates who have yet to be convicted, and, in many occasions, compels them to plead guilty. Anecdotally, pleading guilty just to get out of Rikers is an entrenched pastime, and while it's difficult to track frequency, the discrepancy in court figures can be staggering: In 2011, when Browder was in jail, only 165 felony cases made it to trial in the Bronx; meanwhile, 3,991 defendants pleaded guilty.

Death is no stranger to jails, and suicide is responsible for many of them. In 2012, suicide accounted for a third of the 958 jail deaths nationwide, according to a federal report. And with Rikers, grim headlines about inmates who committed suicide or correctional officers standing trial for inmates' deaths (often mentally ill ones) are a frequent sight. (For more on the plight of the mentally ill at Rikers, read an essay by Mary Buser, a clinical social worker who worked as assistant unit chief in the mental health department on the island, here.)

Since the early 1990s, as crime has fallen, Rikers's population has dropped from an astounding 24,000 to today's nearly 8,000. Critics expect the decline to continue, with new speedy trial and bail reforms, nearing the ballpark where closing the jail complex may no longer seem like a pipe dream. Local jails, they argue, would grant greater access to families, lawyers, and courts.

But one former city corrections boss is stuck on the same snag Mayor Bill de Blasio and other skeptics have cited: Logistically and financially, closing Rikers is an awfully heavy lift.

"It's convenient to the Bronx, Queens, Manhattan, and Brooklyn," Peter Curcio, who was second-in-command at the DOC in the late 2000s, told me. "The other thing is, jail construction costs are always double whatever the initial projected costs are.

"Get past the argument of, 'We'll take the jails in our backyards'; get past the argument of, 'A facility is going to cost $1.6 billion'; and get past the seven to ten years it'd take to design and build," he continued. "I just think it's too many obstacles to overcome."

Separating the jails would "stretch the [city's] resources," tacking on transportation, health service, and delivery costs, he argued. Classification issues, too, would arise, since Rikers separates adults from juveniles, women from men, and violent from nonviolent inmates. Not to mention that other city jails, which currently can hold 3,000 beds, would lack space for the 7,600 people on Rikers. (Recent city documents floated a $7 billion plan, which includes constructing two new 2,000-bed facilities: one next to a police academy in Queens, and another next to the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center, a barge jail in the Bronx.)

"So you throw 600 in Queens, 800 in Brooklyn," Curcio, who's worked at these jails, asked of plans to forge ahead without significant new construction. "What are you doing with the other thousands of inmates?"


Watch Sheriff Tom Dart break down the challenge of running a massive jail in Chicago that happens to be one of America's largest mental health institutions.


Being in the heart of New York City, with its high numbers of homeless and mentally ill individuals, Curcio says Rikers is unlike any other prison or jail he's visited. But even though he thinks closing it is tough, Curcio acknowledges the jail's major flaws, including violence, poor mental health training, and limited safety—issues other correctional facilities face across the country.

That's a sentiment you often hear even from skeptics of closing the place: that regardless of what happens, something needs to be done with Rikers Island.

When asked about Mayor de Blasio's position on closing the penal colony, a city hall spokesperson pointed me to a column de Blasio wrote in the Staten Island Advance last April, in which he outlined his administration's reform efforts so far. But, in terms of an all-out shutdown, where he stands is a bit less clear: While he thinks the idea warrants "serious consideration," de Blasio doesn't want to stop reforming the Rikers Island we have today.

"After decades of neglect, culture change won't happen overnight," the mayor wrote. "But we have signs that our reforms are starting to work. And no matter where we choose to house our jails ten years from now, today we need to keep moving down the path that is making the system better."

As de Blasio's 2017 reelection bid nears, Rikers reform is sure to become a talking point on the campaign trail, with the mayor's more progressive allies calling for wholesale change. Only now, it's clear the politics of the possible can swing suddenly—Donald Trump's surprise win certainly shocked criminal justice reformers nationwide after he ran on a law-and-order platform. Even so, incarceration reform has begun to go mainstream nationwide, and this moment represents fertile ground, at least at the local level, for a total rethink of how to lock up people we suspect (or, in the case of prisons, think we know) are dangerous.

This article is part of the VICE series The Future of Incarceration. Read the rest of the package here.

Follow John Surico on Twitter.