Next Stop: Closing Rikers


Imagine a New York City where all of this does not go to locking people up before their day in court. Photo by Mark McNulty.

Rivers Island is a depraved and dangerous place, a moral stain on New York City. The time has come to close it down. Starting March 11th, that will be the sole focus of my work, when I join JustLeadershipUSA as its new Director of Policy and Campaigns.

JustLeadership’s founder and executive director, Glenn Martin, has been one of the loudest voices calling for Rikers’ closure. It’s not hard to see why. The jail is under investigation by the U.S. Attorney for failing to protect its teenagers from correction officer violence. The tragedy of Rikers was given a personal face last year when the world learned about Kalief Browder, a teenager who was held there without trial for three years over allegedly stealing a backpack before committing suicide. A recent, grisly profile by Vice details the horrors and scandal from generations past and present.

Most galling about the deplorable state of violence and corruption at Rikers Island is that 90% of the New Yorkers detained on Rikers Island have yet to have their day in court. (The remaining 10% are serving sentences of less than a year.) These are New York’s accused, people who couldn’t make bail, languishing in cells for months waiting for trial.  Should people awaiting trial be cursed to such a place, or should they be held in community-based facilities, with access to their families, lawyers, and the social services they need?

Shutting down Rikers is increasingly becoming a politically mainstream position. The New York Times editorial board called for Rikers’ closure last week. Last fall Comptroller Scott Stringer did the same. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has started a commission, to be led by retired Judge Jonathan Lippman, to assess whether it should be closed. New York City will come to the conclusion that closing Rikers is the correct moral choice. Executing a sound plan that works with communities to relocate thousands of detainees will be challenging, but we will get it done.

During law school, my path crossed with Rikers repeatedly: a lawsuit over detainees who had been denied healthcare, even during gruesome emergencies; a campaign to fight a diminution in “minimum standards” requirements; an effort to improve the nutrition in juveniles’ food; and finally, launching a partnership with Fordham Law School to provide legal rights workshops to juveniles. That program lasted for years, and offered law students a chance to teach those young men, some of whom were strikingly charismatic and brilliant, about the law, while the youths educated the law students about how the law was applied in real life. Those Sunday mornings were incredibly meaningful and profoundly sad. Few things will bring me greater joy than to see Rikers finally closed.


Rivers Island in the center of this map, with a bridge connecting to the Queens side. Image from Untapped Cities.

Consider the impact of closing Rikers, not only on the New York City criminal justice system, but on the city landscape as a whole. In 2016, we can reimagine this island as somewhere to build affordable housing, a new park, or a LaGuardia airport extension. The future is unwritten.


Leaving the Civilian Complaint Review Board was not an easy decision. Police oversight and jail reform are cousin issues, and the CCRB’s mission is essential. The agency continues to make significant strides, and New Yorkers can file police misconduct complaints with greater confidence that they will be investigated rigorously than at any time in the agency’s history. Of course, the CCRB still has a long way to go in rebuilding community trust and ensuring that the NYPD takes the disciplinary process seriously. I regret not being able to continue working on those issues and more. I assisted on several major forthcoming reports, and will circulate them when they are released.

We are looking for an attorney to replace me (there are actually two attorney openings in my unit), so for anyone looking to enter city service, this is a great opportunity. If you know any talented lawyers, whether they are already  criminal justice experts or looking to parachute out of the corporate world, pass along this opportunity. They can apply for the Legal Policy Analyst position here (job code: 222790).

Here’s another exciting job announcement: JustLeadershipUSA is looking to hire dynamic young organizers who are committed to ending mass incarceration and closing down Rikers. The job description is here: JustLeadershipUSA Community Organizer. Please circulate this and help me build an awesome team.

Thank you for reading, and thank you to all those who have supported my previous ventures. I will absolutely be calling on all of you to help this time around. Now, we get to work.


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