Opinion: We can’t give up on closing Rikers

The city can still close the jail by 2027 if it invests in alternatives to incarceration and supportive housing.

Jonathan McLean

Jonathan McLean Day 1 Pictures

At the time I'm writing this, the population at Rikers Island stands at 5,898. In a recent Inside City Hall interview with Mayor Eric Adams, Errol Louis pointed out that if the mayor made good on his promise to give the 48% of people at Rikers with mental health issues “service and care, not incarceration,” he could cut that number in half and reach the target 3,300 population necessary for closing Rikers. “That’s right,” Mayor Adams said. But since then, the Adams administration has repeatedly cast doubt on legally-mandated plans to close Rikers by 2027. Last month, the administration announced that the Brooklyn Detention Center – one the borough-based jails that is supposed to replace Rikers – would not be operational until 2029.

All New Yorkers, including the most vulnerable, should be safe in our communities. We at CASES believe that effective treatment of our most vulnerable citizens is the most effective pathway to community safety for all New Yorkers. Programs like our Nathaniel Project, an alternative-to-incarceration program for New Yorkers living with serious mental illnesses who have felony arrests, have consistently proven to support wellness and recovery in the community and reduce recidivism. The Nathaniel Project is only one example of the solutions we have and that we know work with care and investment by the mayor’s office, city agencies and the City Council. We all know that Rikers needs to close. This is how we do it.  

The first step on the path to true safety and justice is to unequivocally acknowledge the humanity of all New Yorkers, including people accused of a crime. Mayor Adams’ language during the past few months is eerily reminiscent of the “superpredator” language of the hyper-carceral 90s, including a recent statement that “being placed in Rikers means that you are a bad person.” This is not who the people we work with are. 

Our extensive program data – collected and reported to the Mayor’s office – supports our experience as service providers that many people awaiting trial in New York City have complex needs, which can be much better addressed in a community setting than in jail. This is further compounded by the fact that health care on Rikers remains incredibly hard to access. Dashawn Carter, 25 years old, missed 92 medical appointments before dying on Rikers last year, most of which were “missed” because he was not escorted by Department of Correction staff to appointments. 

The two areas of greatest need for the people we work with are also the two most prominent characteristics of people who end up at Rikers and are held the longest: mental health needs and chronic homelessness. 

Many people have never been able to access the mental health services they need, especially while homeless. Failing to recognize this, our society often scapegoats people with mental health needs as drivers of recidivism. Driven by this thinking, we send them to Rikers, which compounds barriers to quality care and recovery.

CASES Pretrial Services shows that we have safe and effective alternatives to incarceration. The vast majority of CASES Pretrial clients (86% in FY21) make their court appearances successfully, without having a warrant issued for failure to appear. Our clients are also unlikely to be re-arrested: 85% of our supervised release clients do not have a felony rearrest, and 93% do not have a violent felony rearrest. CASES data also shows that people have significant needs that cannot be met by incarceration. One in five people served in CASES Pretrial Services have serious behavioral health needs, according to state health records, and 31% of clients are homeless, with 13% experiencing street homelessness. 

The barriers for these most vulnerable New Yorkers can be overwhelming, especially once they’ve come into contact with our city’s criminal legal system. These clients need connections to mental health care and housing, not incarceration at a deadly jail like Rikers. We need to adequately invest in solutions like Justice Involved Supportive Housing, which meets the needs of New Yorkers who are cycling between jails, shelters, and hospitals. 

We also need to acknowledge the bias that already exists around homelessness. This has driven Mayor Adams to think that simply taking people off the street and out of our sight will solve the underlying issues. It has caused judges to be more hesitant to release people who are street homeless, sending them to Rikers Island where the abuse and neglect they’ve experienced on the outside intensifies to life-threatening levels. 

The bottom line is this: Housing and mental health needs cannot be met while an individual is incarcerated. In fact, incarceration can result in an individual becoming ineligible for certain housing programs. Incarceration also worsens mental health, and NYC jails are currently unable to provide even the most basic mental health care. We look to Mayor Adams’ leadership - not in a return to the failed, harmful policies of endless punishment at Rikers, but in a vision that invests in healing and recovery through proven solutions.

Jonathan McLean is the Chief Executive Officer of The Center for Alternative Sentencing & Employment Solutions (CASES) and a formerly incarcerated person. CASES works in courts and in the community to help break unjust cycles of arrest and incarceration and is a member of the Campaign to Close Rikers.

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