On October 13, 2021, several organizations came together to protest closing the death camp; closing this death chamber has been a long-standing issue for advocates of criminal justice reform and abolitionists throughout New York State for decades. The crumbling infrastructure, the infestation of rodents, inhumane living conditions, the onset of COVID-19, and the ongoing deplorable abuse from staff and persons in custody have resulted in far too many deaths.
I remember back in 1979 being shipped off to Rikers Island at 17 years of age. I was petrified because of the stories I heard about the rapes, the rat infestation, the officer’s treatment of the residents, the fights with shanks, and that you might not make it out once you were there. The conditions I encountered were far worse than the stories. The cells were filthy, with residue of food and feces dried or smeared on the walls. Rats, water bugs, and mice infested the units. When locked in for the night, that was your problem. The mess hall food was inedible, and I lived off of packaged soup and snacks I purchased at the commissary. I watched women fight over what to watch on the TV while the officers just sat back and ignored it. I rarely came out of my cell for fear that I would be a target.
How officials will implement these changes is yet another cause for debate. Abolitionists and advocates for prison reform are opposed to the building of new prisons and jails. They would like to see many residents moved to existing facilities or to alternatives to prisons and jails for those who need mental health and substance abuse intervention and nonviolent crimes that people are being detained for because they could not pay the bail fees.
There is a lot of controversy about the next steps and how to ensure that everyone is safe. The residents at Rikers have signed a petition because they will be farther away from their lawyers, children, and family if put into the upstate facilities at Bedford Hill or Taconic. There have been numerous discussions about housing women and gender-expansive people; some of the suggestions have been to release people on their recognizance, supervised release for those on pre-trial detention, and grant clemency for others. We want the women in the community, not in cages, advocates demanded.
The statement by Governor Hochul mentions integrating people coming from Rikers with people at Bedford Hills and Taconic facilities in Westchester, New York.
Many questions have arisen among advocacy groups as to the fate of these women. What are the consequences of such a transfer? What are the pros and cons?
Who is being transferred? Those serving a conviction, or those in pre-trial detention, or both?
How will those with pending cases be served so far away from their lawyers and families?
If there are people on pre-trial detention moved, that poses constitutional/legal issues for the state?
Are those in Riker’s with parole violations being moved as well? Are there any people who could have their parole warrants lifted by the attorney general in alignment with Less Is More? How will this transfer impact women’s access to necessary support, such as legal counseling, service providers like WPA, and their families?