Reimagining Rikers

Can a place that’s become synonymous with injustice and suffering ever embody regeneration and growth?

IN FEBRUARY 2022, A 31-YEAR-OLD woman named Mary Yehudah arrived at the Rose M. Singer Center, the women’s facility at one of the nation’s most notorious jail complexes, Rikers Island. Located in the East River, between the New York City boroughs of the Bronx and Queens, Rikers houses thousands of detainees on any given day, the majority of whom are awaiting trial and presumed innocent.

According to her family and attorneys, Yehudah was not screened for diabetes when she entered the facility, despite a legal requirement that the New York City Department of Correction (DOC) do so. Over the course of the next three months, Yehudah, a Black woman who had suffered homelessness and mental health challenges, complained of heart palpitations, shortness of breath, high blood pressure, and dental problems — all symptoms of diabetes. She was never diagnosed, and on May 17, she was discovered unresponsive in her cell. She died the next day at a city hospital, the fifth fatality that year for a person in the custody of the DOC. Jail officials initially said they suspected that Yehudah had died of an overdose, but Yehudah’s lawyers point to untreated diabetes and tests that showed no indications of drugs in her system.

Yehudah’s death was another reminder that Rikers, infamously callous to those held there, needs to be shut down. Her death was especially disheartening, as it occurred the same day justice advocates learned that a Bronx judge found the city in civil contempt for failing to get detainees on Rikers to medical appointments in December and January.

The same day Yehudah was found unresponsive, the city unveiled a mandated plan to reform the island. That plan is a step toward a repurposing of Rikers, which is legally required to cease incarceration operations by August 2027. In 2021, New York City Council members approved the “Renewable Rikers Act,” which will move the island away from the DOC to a separate city administration and mandates a study for its capacity to house renewable energy resources.

“The 413 acres of Rikers Island have, for far too long, embodied an unjust and racist criminal justice system,” New York Council Member Costa Constantinides said after the passage of the act. “Far too many New Yorkers found themselves caught in a cycle of over-policing and over-incarceration symbolized by an island named for the family of a slave catcher. Now, however, we will have a golden opportunity to put the principles of the Green New Deal into practice with the Renewable Rikers Act. These bills will offer the city a pathway to building a hub for sustainability and resiliency that can serve as a model to cities around the world.”

“Renewable Rikers” presents opportunities, as well as challenges, to the city’s collective imagination, and it raises an important question that echoes beyond the East River: Can a place that’s become synonymous with suffering, death, and injustice come to embody regeneration and growth?

FOR JUSTICE ADVOCATES LIKE Sharon White-Harrigan, who spent time at the Rose M. Singer Center in 1992 and 1993 and a total 12 years incarcerated, any means to close Rikers is justified. White-Harrigan is a leading advocate for systems-involved women and has worked tirelessly for more than 19 years on prison reform and abolition. “Over half a million dollars is spent to incarcerate just one person for a year in New York City,” she told me recently. “With half a million dollars, you could pull people out of poverty. You could stabilize families. People could actually see a light at the end of the tunnel. But instead, we spend it on warehousing people.”

“These [Renewable Rikers] bills will offer the city a pathway to building a hub for sustainability and resiliency that can serve as a model to cities around the world.”

Last year, New York City’s Department of Correction budget totaled over $2.6 billion, exceeding the nation’s second most expensive jail system, Los Angeles County, by more than a billion. Yet Rikers has stubbornly remained unmanageable: Images of excrement-covered floors, reports of sexual assault, the use of solitary confinement for those struggling with mental health challenges, and inadequate heating and cooling have solidified it as an ongoing humanitarian crisis. In 2022 alone, 19 people died in the 10 facilities that make up the Rikers Island jail system, making it the deadliest year in nearly a decade.

In 2016, White-Harrigan joined survivors of Rikers Island and their families to build a broad coalition, #CloseRikers, to change the hearts and minds of New Yorkers. The coalition was formed by people from criminal justice reform, faith-based organizations, and the public defender’s office, as well as the formerly incarcerated. Together, in 2017, they wrested a commitment from then-Mayor Bill de Blasio to close the jail complex. In 2019, the New York City Council passed the plan to close Rikers by 2027.

That left the question of what to do with the island.

Rikers Island is situated in the middle of New York City’s East River. Much of the island is composed of toxic landfill, and with only one access point, a single bridge from the city, it is notoriously difficult for inmates to receive healthcare, family visits, and even legal representation. Photo by Mike Segar / Alamy.

“For women who have been detained there, they would likely say to burn Rikers to the ground, and they wouldn’t care what it becomes,” White-Harrigan said. “They just want to keep going and not look back. But as far as I’m concerned, the green plan is a great way to ensure that Rikers isn’t used or reimagined for punitive measures ever again.”

Darren Mack, a leading voice and visionary of the #CloseRikers coalition and Renewable Rikers, was incarcerated for 20 years, with 18 months on Rikers. “Renewable Rikers means the creation of green jobs for communities across the city,” he said. “It means replacing outdated, polluting technology throughout the city — most of which is in Black and Brown neighborhoods — and freeing up public space for communities to decide what should be there.”

“There is no way to undo the harm that Rikers has caused,” Michael Dulong, senior attorney at Riverkeeper, an environmental watchdog for New York’s waterways, told me recently. “But reimagining Rikers from a green perspective is one way that the communities who have suffered from Rikers Island can actually benefit from it.”

FOR THOSE DIRECTLY IMPACTED by Rikers, a renewable path forward was favored in large part because it is the most pragmatic one. But the change is also symbolic.

In 1884, Rikers Island was only 87.5 acres, but over the course of the next several decades, the city exploited prison labor to expand its acreage to more than 400. The landfill area is composed entirely of ash and garbage. While the last refuse barge was emptied on Rikers almost a century ago, gas leakages, sewage back-ups, and instability beneath foundations are all reminders of this build-out. To this day, the emission of methane gas gives the island a foul, rotten egg odor. Visitors are advised not to drink the water here. Detainees drink it instead.

This hostile physical environment is just one element that makes Rikers such a difficult place. Its physical geography makes it notoriously hard to visit, with one bridge leading in and out, limiting visits by loved ones, legal representatives, and health professionals.

Sharon White-Harrigan, who advocates for an end to incarceration on Rikers Island, sees the “Renewable Rikers” plan as a means to transform the island for the good of many communities. Photo courtesy of Women’s Community Justice Association.

Darren Mack, a leader within the #CloseRikers movement, says the plan to reimagine Rikers will mean more jobs and cleaner environments for many Black and Brown neighborhoods. Photo courtesy of Freedom Agenda.

The island is toxic — physically, environmentally, and spiritually. But it does not stand alone in this in New York. Across the city are 16 gas-powered “peaker” power plants, which provide electricity to the grid during peak demand. These heavy polluters, which run on fossil fuels, are located primarily in low-income minority communities, such as the South Bronx and parts of Queens. They pollute the air in the same communities that are disproportionately criminalized across the city. Sewage outlets impact similar communities. Research from the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance shows that most communities within a half mile of the city’s 495 sewage outfalls are “disproportionately low-income and people of color.”

“Renewable Rikers” addresses many of these injustices — beating out developers who wanted luxury apartments there and planners who wanted to expand LaGuardia Airport. It also sets a new precedent: Of the 21 states that have partially or fully closed a correctional facility to date, reuses have ranged from a business park in Michigan to a whisky distillery in Tennessee. Renewable Rikers would be the first of its kind.

“Reimagining Rikers from a green perspective is one way that the communities who have suffered from Rikers Island can actually benefit from it.”

“Retiring and replacing these facilities with solar energy, battery storage, and a consolidated wastewater treatment plant on Rikers would liberate large swathes of waterfront property for communities to redevelop according to their own needs and priorities — and eliminate severe health risks,” the Plan for Renewable Rikers says.

“We learned from the community what we could do with an opportunity like this. Reimagining this number of acres, not only on Rikers, but in environmental justice communities across New York City, is once in a lifetime,” said Shravanthi Kanekal, a resiliency planner at NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, which is a key partner in Renewable Rikers.

Though a green solution was not always a part of the plan for #CloseRikers, as more community members expressed a need to address broader environmental injustices alongside the brutality of the facilities, the coalition’s attention gradually shifted. It began to include environmental justice organizations and green groups, which quickly mobilized in tandem with criminal justice reformers and abolitionists. “We held community town halls in all five boroughs, which showed us how Renewable Rikers could heal communities across the city — not just the ones directly impacted by Rikers,” Mack said. The coordination of these groups, he said, underscores an idea from the poet Audre Lorde: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

THE RESULT OF THIS PARTICULAR struggle was a series of laws, under the Renewable Rikers umbrella, that created three environmental uses for Rikers Island. The legislation commissioned one study on the creation of a wastewater treatment facility on the island, another to assess what types of electricity generation could be constructed there, and third to evaluate a proposed food scrap and yard waste recycling operation on the island. The Regional Plan Association, which seeks to improve the prosperity, sustainability, and quality of life of the New York metropolitan region, developed the Renewable Rikers Plan, which details what the renewed island could look like.

Related Reading
America's Toxic Prisons

The environmental injustices of mass incarceration

Can Prisons Be Flipped for Good?

Turning old jails into employment hubs is challenging, but some groups are getting creative

‘Cruel and Unusual’: Texas Prisoners Face Deadly Heat and Contaminated Water

Lawsuit alleges that prisoners must drink copious amounts of lead- and copper-tained water to cope with high temperatures

Forced to Endure Extreme Heat, Texas Prisoners Becoming Casualties of Climate Denial

Dangerous prison conditions likely to worsen as heat waves intensify with climate change

Imagine. Driving in across the sole bridge from Queens, you would first reach a visitor center, replacing the West Facility, which once housed nearly 1,000 detainees and the contagious diseases section. The center would be a memorial, dedicated to remembrance of Rikers’ past and would acknowledge the suffering that took place here. To the west, wastewater facilities would clean the city’s sewage — replacing four aging plants located in the East River, which are responsible for 30 to 40 percent of the city’s sewer overflow. This treatment facility would improve New York City’s waters by reducing the pathogens found in the city’s waterways, curtailing pollution of its beaches, bays, and rivers.

To the east of the visitor center, you would find students coming and going from a research and training institute for green jobs, studying renewable energy and preparing for green-tech work, like solar installation.

Beyond the institute, on the site of what was one of the island’s most dangerous jails, you’d find a vast field of solar arrays, with plants growing between them, perhaps even crops: carrots, kale, tomatoes. These arrays would collect energy from the sun to be stored in a massive battery farm, the world’s largest, creating an energy hub that could phase out nearby peaker plants, including, the plan says, “three privately owned peakers in [nearby] Astoria, dubbed ‘asthma alley,’” along with two plants in the South Bronx, making Rikers “an invaluable asset in the city’s shift away from fossil fuels.” The energy hub would almost double the city’s current solar production, allowing New York to keep pace with advancing technologies and market forces and “make the city’s energy grid more redundant and able to withstand the likelihood of more frequent grid failure.”

An artist’s rendering of what a ”Renewable Rikers” might look like, with solar arrays, battery banks, organic waste disposal, and centers for energy research and green job training. Photo by Andrea Johnson for Regional Plan Association.

North of the energy hub, you’d find a wide field, mere acres from the site of the former Rose M. Singer women’s facility, where now windrows of open-air composting help break down the city’s organic matter. This operation could process over 365,000 tons of organic waste per year, a third of the city’s total organic-waste stream. In a city where organics comprise over one third of total residential waste, with much of this waste ending up in landfills, incinerators, or far off facilities in Ohio and South Carolina (transported through underserved communities), an organic-waste treatment hub on Rikers would solve many of the city’s greatest inefficiencies. Elsewhere on the island, you might find a second research facility, which would study synergies between wastewater, energy, and organic-waste management. You’d also find wastewater transfers, anaerobic digesters, and coastal buffer zones, where ferns, reeds, and shrubs grow to ameliorate storm surge intensity.

Many have criticized Mayor Eric Adams’ close relationship with correctional employee unions.

All of these would combine to make Rikers a valuable asset for the city. The replacement of the East River sewage plants would also free up waterfront acreage, offering an opportunity for communities to decide what should go in their neighborhood, whether that be public parks, playgrounds, green infrastructure, or much-needed affordable housing. There’s even the potential to create natural parkland in waterfront areas across the city — liberating acres of wetlands that would offer more buffer against storm surges, as well as woods for beavers, otters, and foxes.

Of course, challenges to this near, imaginable, renewable future remain. With the arrival of Eric Adams as New York City mayor, in January 2022, came a more aggressive approach to public safety. As a result, incarceration has been used far less sparingly. Many have criticized Adams’ close relationship with correctional employee unions and his administration’s close alignment with them on policy priorities — such as continuing the use of solitary confinement.

Under his administration, in the fiscal year 2022, the population on Rikers increased compared to the previous year, despite an overall downward trend in NYC’s jail population over the last five years. The plan to close Rikers calls for the city’s jail population to drop to 3,300 people who can be held in borough-based jails, but this year the NYC jail population is expected to hit 7,000. This rise threatens progress towards the scheduled 2027 closure and even calls into question whether the mayor will uphold the law. Adams has increasingly been talking about “Plan B” for the jail complex to accommodate the rising jail population. His chief counsel Brendan McGuire is apparently leading a “small working group” to see what this plan would be. “We can’t be so optimistic that we’re not realistic, or idealistic that we’re not realistic,” he told CBS 2 News in January.

The coalition has remained diligent in holding city departments to account, regularly following up with city officials to ensure that the feasibility studies, as laid out by law, move forward. The studies are expected to be made public this spring. Meanwhile, on February 4, yet another person died in custody on Rikers, 65-year-old Marvin Pines. Pines’s death is still under investigation, but his lawyer says that Pines died of a seizure while taking a shower.

Those pushing for the jails to close down say that as long as Rikers remains open, more people, especially the physically vulnerable, are going to die.

“It’s been frustrating because there hasn’t been a lot of movement,” Kanekal of NYC Environmental Justice Alliance said. The city has missed its two most recent deadlines for land transfer from the DOC to other agencies, despite one facility sitting empty since mid-2022.

For White-Harrigan, these are delays, not defeat. Her job, she says, is to keep hope alive for her community, for people like Mary Yehudah and Marvin Pines, their families, and the thousands of people who have been incarcerated at Rikers. “We have to remember the people who came through there,” she said. “We’re going to fight until it’s right.”

Note: An earlier version of this article implied that the new facilities on Rikers Island improve NYC’s drinking water supply by cleaning up local waterways. That’s not the case since the city’s drinking water supply comes from the Catskills region in upstate New York.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.