Decarceration Advocates Call for Rikers to Be Transformed Into Green Energy Hub

In February 2022, a 31-year-old girl named Mary Yehudah arrived on the Rose M. Singer Middle, the ladies’s facility at one of many nation’s most infamous jail complexes, Rikers Island. Positioned within the East River, between the New York Metropolis boroughs of the Bronx and Queens, Rikers homes 1000’s of detainees on any given day, the vast majority of whom are awaiting trial and presumed harmless.

In accordance with her household and attorneys, Yehudah was not screened for diabetes when she entered the power, regardless of a authorized requirement that the New York Metropolis Division of Correction (DOC) achieve this. Over the course of the following three months, Yehudah, a Black girl who had suffered homelessness and psychological well being challenges, complained of coronary heart palpitations, shortness of breath, hypertension, and dental issues — all signs of diabetes. She was by no means recognized, and on Could 17, she was found unresponsive in her cell. She died the following day at a metropolis hospital, the fifth fatality that yr for an individual within the custody of the DOC. Jail officers initially mentioned they suspected that Yehudah had died of an overdose, however Yehudah’s attorneys level to untreated diabetes and exams that confirmed no indications of medication in her system.

Yehudah’s dying was one other reminder that Rikers, infamously callous to these held there, must be shut down. Her dying was particularly disheartening, because it occurred the identical day justice advocates discovered {that a} Bronx decide discovered the town in civil contempt for failing to get detainees on Rikers to medical appointments in December and January.

The identical day Yehudah was discovered unresponsive, the town unveiled a mandated plan to reform the island. That plan is a step towards a repurposing of Rikers, which is legally required to stop incarceration operations by August 2027. In 2021, New York Metropolis Council members authorised the “Renewable Rikers Act,” which is able to transfer the island away from the DOC to a separate metropolis administration and mandates a examine for its capability to deal with renewable power assets.

“The 413 acres of Rikers Island have, for a lot too lengthy, embodied an unjust and racist felony justice system,” New York Council Member Costa Constantinides mentioned after the passage of the act. “Far too many New Yorkers discovered themselves caught in a cycle of over-policing and over-incarceration symbolized by an island named for the household of a slave catcher. Now, nevertheless, we could have a golden alternative to place the ideas of the Inexperienced New Deal into observe with the Renewable Rikers Act. These payments will supply the town a pathway to constructing a hub for sustainability and resiliency that may function a mannequin to cities world wide.”

“Renewable Rikers” presents alternatives, in addition to challenges, to the town’s collective creativeness, and it raises an vital query that echoes past the East River: Can a spot that’s grow to be synonymous with struggling, dying, and injustice come to embody regeneration and development?

For justice advocates like Sharon White-Harrigan, who hung out on the Rose M. Singer Middle in 1992 and 1993 and a complete 12 years incarcerated, any means to shut Rikers is justified. White-Harrigan is a number one advocate for systems-involved girls and has labored tirelessly for greater than 19 years on jail reform and abolition. “Over half one million {dollars} is spent to incarcerate only one particular person for a yr in New York Metropolis,” she instructed me lately. “With half one million {dollars}, you could possibly pull folks out of poverty. You possibly can stabilize households. Folks might truly see a lightweight on the finish of the tunnel. However as a substitute, we spend it on warehousing folks.”

Final yr, New York Metropolis’s Division of Correction funds totaled over $2.6 billion, exceeding the nation’s second most costly jail system, Los Angeles County, by greater than a billion. But Rikers has stubbornly remained unmanageable: Pictures of excrement-covered flooring, reviews of sexual assault, the usage of solitary confinement for these combating psychological well being challenges, and insufficient heating and cooling have solidified it as an ongoing humanitarian disaster. In 2022 alone, 19 folks died within the 10 services that make up the Rikers Island jail system, making it the deadliest yr in practically a decade.

In 2016, White-Harrigan joined survivors of Rikers Island and their households to construct a broad coalition, #CloseRikers, to alter the hearts and minds of New Yorkers. The coalition was fashioned by folks from felony justice reform, faith-based organizations, and the general public defender’s workplace, in addition to the previously incarcerated. Collectively, in 2017, they wrested a dedication from then-Mayor Invoice de Blasio to shut the jail advanced. In 2019, the New York Metropolis Council handed the plan to shut Rikers by 2027.

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

“For girls who’ve been detained there, they might possible say to burn Rikers to the bottom, and so they wouldn’t care what it turns into,” White-Harrigan mentioned. “They simply wish to maintain going and never look again. However so far as I’m involved, the inexperienced plan is a good way to make sure that Rikers isn’t used or reimagined for punitive measures ever once more.”

Darren Mack, a number one 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 inexperienced jobs for communities throughout the town,” he mentioned. “It means changing outdated, polluting know-how all through the town — most of which is in Black and Brown neighborhoods — and releasing up public area for communities to resolve what ought to be there.”

“There isn’t any strategy to undo the hurt that Rikers has induced,” Michael Dulong, senior legal professional at Riverkeeper, an environmental watchdog for New York’s waterways, instructed me lately. “However reimagining Rikers from a inexperienced perspective is a method that the communities who’ve suffered from Rikers Island can truly profit from it.”

For these instantly impacted by Rikers, a renewable path ahead was favored largely as a result of it’s the most pragmatic one. However the change can be symbolic.

In 1884, Rikers Island was solely 87.5 acres, however over the course of the following a number of a long time, the town exploited jail labor to broaden its acreage to greater than 400. The landfill space consists fully of ash and rubbish. Whereas the final refuse barge was emptied on Rikers virtually a century in the past, fuel leakages, sewage back-ups, and instability beneath foundations are all reminders of this build-out. To today, the emission of methane fuel offers the island a foul, rotten egg odor. Guests are suggested to not drink the water right here. Detainees drink it as a substitute.

This hostile bodily surroundings is only one factor that makes Rikers such a troublesome place. Its bodily geography makes it notoriously exhausting to go to, with one bridge main out and in, limiting visits by family members, authorized representatives, and well being professionals.

The island is poisonous — bodily, environmentally, and spiritually. Nevertheless it doesn’t stand alone on this in New York. Throughout the town are 16 gas-powered “peaker” energy vegetation, which offer electrical energy to the grid throughout peak demand. These heavy polluters, which run on fossil fuels, are positioned primarily in low-income minority communities, such because the South Bronx and elements of Queens. They pollute the air in the identical communities which can be disproportionately criminalized throughout the town. Sewage retailers impression related communities. Analysis from the New York Metropolis Environmental Justice Alliance shows that the majority communities inside a half mile of the town’s 495 sewage outfalls are “disproportionately low-income and folks of coloration.”

“Renewable Rikers” addresses many of those injustices — beating out builders who wished luxurious residences there and planners who wished to broaden LaGuardia Airport. It additionally units a brand new precedent: Of the 21 states which have partially or totally closed a correctional facility to this point, reuses have ranged from a enterprise park in Michigan to a whisky distillery in Tennessee. Renewable Rikers could be the primary of its variety.

“Retiring and changing these services with photo voltaic power, battery storage, and a consolidated wastewater remedy plant on Rikers would liberate massive swathes of waterfront property for communities to redevelop in accordance with their very own wants and priorities — and eradicate extreme well being dangers,” the Plan for Renewable Rikers says.

“We discovered from the neighborhood what we might do with a possibility like this. Reimagining this variety of acres, not solely on Rikers, however in environmental justice communities throughout New York Metropolis, is as soon as in a lifetime,” mentioned Shravanthi Kanekal, a resiliency planner at NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, which is a key accomplice in Renewable Rikers.

Although a inexperienced answer was not at all times part of the plan for #CloseRikers, as extra neighborhood members expressed a necessity to handle broader environmental injustices alongside the brutality of the services, the coalition’s consideration regularly shifted. It started to incorporate environmental justice organizations and inexperienced teams, which shortly mobilized in tandem with felony justice reformers and abolitionists. “We held neighborhood city halls in all 5 boroughs, which confirmed us how Renewable Rikers might heal communities throughout the town — not simply those instantly impacted by Rikers,” Mack mentioned. The coordination of those teams, he mentioned, underscores an thought from the poet Audre Lorde: “There isn’t any such factor as a single-issue battle as a result of we don’t reside single-issue lives.”

The results of this specific battle was a collection of legal guidelines, beneath the Renewable Rikers umbrella, that created three environmental makes use of for Rikers Island. The laws commissioned one examine on the creation of a wastewater remedy facility on the island, one other to evaluate what kinds of electrical energy era may very well be constructed there, and third to guage a proposed meals scrap and yard waste recycling operation on the island. The Regional Plan Affiliation, which seeks to enhance the prosperity, sustainability, and high quality of lifetime of the New York metropolitan area, developed the Renewable Rikers Plan, which particulars what the renewed island might appear to be.

Think about. Driving in throughout the only bridge from Queens, you’d first attain a customer middle, changing the West Facility, which as soon as housed practically 1,000 detainees and the contagious ailments part. The middle could be a memorial, devoted to remembrance of Rikers’ previous and would acknowledge the struggling that happened right here. To the west, wastewater services would clear the town’s sewage — changing 4 getting old vegetation positioned within the East River, that are liable for 30 to 40 p.c of the town’s sewer overflow. This remedy facility would enhance New York Metropolis’s waters by decreasing the pathogens discovered within the metropolis’s waterways, curbing air pollution of its seashores, bays, and rivers.

To the east of the customer middle, you’d discover college students coming and going from a analysis and coaching institute for inexperienced jobs, learning renewable power and making ready for green-tech work, like photo voltaic set up.

Past the institute, on the positioning of what was one of many island’s most harmful jails, you’d discover a huge discipline of photo voltaic arrays, with vegetation rising between them, even perhaps crops: carrots, kale, tomatoes. These arrays would acquire power from the solar to be saved in an enormous battery farm, the world’s largest, creating an power hub that would section out close by peaker vegetation, together with, the plan says, “three privately owned peakers in [nearby] Astoria, dubbed ‘bronchial asthma alley,’” together with two vegetation within the South Bronx, making Rikers “a useful asset within the metropolis’s shift away from fossil fuels.” The power hub would virtually double the town’s present photo voltaic manufacturing, permitting New York to maintain tempo with advancing applied sciences and market forces and “make the town’s power grid extra redundant and capable of face up to the chance of extra frequent grid failure.”

North of the power hub, you’d discover a extensive discipline, mere acres from the positioning of the previous Rose M. Singer girls’s facility, the place now windrows of open-air composting assist break down the town’s natural matter. This operation might course of over 365,000 tons of natural waste per yr, a 3rd of the town’s whole organic-waste stream. In a metropolis the place organics comprise over one third of whole residential waste, with a lot of this waste ending up in landfills, incinerators, or far off services in Ohio and South Carolina (transported by underserved communities), an organic-waste remedy hub on Rikers would clear up most of the metropolis’s biggest inefficiencies. Elsewhere on the island, you would possibly discover a second analysis facility, which might examine synergies between wastewater, power, and organic-waste administration. You’d additionally discover wastewater transfers, anaerobic digesters, and coastal buffer zones, the place ferns, reeds, and shrubs develop to ameliorate storm surge depth.

All of those would mix to make Rikers a invaluable asset for the town. The substitute of the East River sewage vegetation would additionally unlock waterfront acreage, providing a possibility for communities to resolve what ought to go of their neighborhood, whether or not that be public parks, playgrounds, inexperienced infrastructure, or much-needed reasonably priced housing. There’s even the potential to create pure parkland in waterfront areas throughout the town — liberating acres of wetlands that may supply extra buffer in opposition to storm surges, in addition to woods for beavers, otters, and foxes.

After all, challenges to this close to, possible, renewable future stay. With the arrival of Eric Adams as New York Metropolis mayor, in January 2022, got here a extra aggressive method to public security. Consequently, incarceration has been used far much less sparingly. Many have criticized Adams’ shut relationship with correctional worker unions and his administration’s shut alignment with them on coverage priorities — equivalent to persevering with the usage of solitary confinement.

Beneath his administration, within the fiscal yr 2022, the inhabitants on Rikers elevated in comparison with the earlier yr, regardless of an general downward development in NYC’s jail inhabitants during the last 5 years. The plan to shut Rikers requires the town’s jail inhabitants to drop to three,300 individuals who will be held in borough-based jails, however this yr the NYC jail inhabitants is anticipated to hit 7,000. This rise threatens progress in the direction of the scheduled 2027 closure and even calls into query whether or not the mayor will uphold the legislation. Adams has more and more been speaking about “Plan B” for the jail advanced to accommodate the rising jail inhabitants. His chief counsel Brendan McGuire is seemingly main a “small working group” to see what this plan could be. “We will’t be so optimistic that we’re not life like, or idealistic that we’re not life like,” he instructed CBS 2 News in January.

The coalition has remained diligent in holding metropolis departments to account, usually following up with metropolis officers to make sure that the feasibility research, as laid out by legislation, transfer ahead. The research are anticipated to be made public this spring. In the meantime, on February 4, yet one more particular person died in custody on Rikers, 65-year-old Marvin Pines. Pines’s dying remains to be beneath investigation, however his lawyer says that Pines died of a seizure whereas having a shower.

These pushing for the jails to shut down say that so long as Rikers stays open, extra folks, particularly the bodily weak, are going to die.

“It’s been irritating as a result of there hasn’t been lots of motion,” Kanekal of NYC Environmental Justice Alliance mentioned. The town has missed its two most up-to-date deadlines for land switch from the DOC to different companies, regardless of one facility sitting empty since mid-2022.

For White-Harrigan, these are delays, not defeat. Her job, she says, is to maintain hope alive for her neighborhood, for folks like Mary Yehudah and Marvin Pines, their households, and the 1000’s of people that have been incarcerated at Rikers. “We have now to recollect the individuals who got here by there,” she mentioned. “We’re going to combat till it’s proper.”

A fast message earlier than you retain studying

We’re proud to publish actual information twelve months of the yr, utterly freed from cost to our readers. However producing high-quality, unbiased work shouldn’t be cost-free – we rely closely in your help.

If you happen to discovered the piece above helpful, informative, or inspiring, please think about supporting Truthout with a tax-deductible donation. A present of any dimension makes a distinction and helps maintain this distinctive platform alive.