As the dire situation at Rikers Island dominated headlines in recent weeks, it was Democratic Assembly Member Kenny Burgos, whose Bronx district includes the correctional facility, who managed to most succinctly describe the ongoing crisis: “Horror Island.” Burgos was one of several state elected officials who toured the island and witnessed dreadful conditions at Rikers, where the facilities were reported to be soiled with feces, urine and rotting food and shower stalls were being used as cells.
Just this year, 10 people have died at Rikers, half by suicide. In response to the mounting crisis, Gov. Kathy Hochul ordered the release of 191 inmates and the transfer of 200 others to other facilities, and she signed an executive order permitting virtual court hearings. Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance also suspended bail for certain low-level crimes.
Burgos spoke to City & State, sharing his thoughts on the city’s and the state’s criminal justice system, and some non-Rikers goals as well. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
You're the chair of the Assembly Subcommittee on Reentry and Transitional Services. What does the crisis at Rikers say about the city’s and the state's prison systems?
It's an issue that really hits close to me. The reason that I asked to chair this subcommittee and the reason I even got it renamed so that it conveys the messaging of what we have to do here is because my father was incarcerated in Rikers when I was about 12 years old, and I saw firsthand what that incarceration can do to a family. We almost lost our home. My dad was scarlet-lettered coming out of jail, couldn't get a job. You're just basically reentering society, you’re branded a certain way, and we put every single obstacle through our criminal justice for you not to make it past that.
One thing that always stuck with me when my dad was coming out, he chose an early release after a couple hearings with parole. His options were basically come out, I think, two months early, and you get a year parole or you finish up two months, you get no parole. Everyone that he was incarcerated with told him it was insane to take the two-months early release with a year parole as opposed to just finishing out because everyone in there to this day understood that parole was a trap. It was just a system designed to make you go back into the jail and correction system, the recidivism was insane. Me being the chair of Reentry, we want to rewrite that story. My dad, thankfully now, has gone on, he's built his own business, and he had resources and family, but most of that is luck. I think what our goal here now, my goal as the chairman of the subcommittee, is to take luck out of the equation, to make sure that we reverse these policies, that we make sure this criminal justice system really works for people to reintegrate in society, to rehabilitate them.
What do you think of the mayor’s plan to close Rikers and create borough-based, more humane jails?
So I was in the council (as a staffer) when this plan was proposed and pushed. And I remember just thinking, “I don't see how we take an incarceration system, close down, repackage it, and just divvy it up into the boroughs as if we solved an issue. The issue is in Rikers Island, but the real core of the issue is mass incarceration. Borough-based jails are not solving the root cause here. It's not solving why we have individuals subject to this system, why we have this recidivism, why we have people coming in and out of our jail system being bused to the shelters. A borough-based jail system doesn't fix that to me.
What are your hopes while Rikers is in the spotlight?
My hopes are we bring the population way, way down. I think strategically, you have an outgoing mayor, you have an incoming governor. It's no question there's obviously a primary election coming next year. And I think strategically with this being a top of the news cycle, we need to take our top political leaders to take real decisive action and really change what that structure looks like. So again, I commend the governor for expanding remote court hearings, but now at least come down a little bit harder on the correction officers union. They need to come to the table and have a better conversation on how we’re going to make this facility work. I sympathize with the (correction officers) – it's a hellhole for the people incarcerated and the people who work there. But someone has to make decisive action and say we need to fix this entire system from the root.
Ten people have died at Rikers. How should we be treating those who are incarcerated?
It’s a mark of failure on our city and our state. Rikers Island is a jail facility, it's not a prison, right. Eighty-seven percent of people in Rikers are not even charged. If the criminal justice system is going to say you're innocent till proven guilty, I guess we should add a little asterisk – unless you can't afford bail, unless you don't have the proper resources, unless (you lack) proper connections, because unfortunately, it's almost as if you're presumed guilty. And for some people that guilty verdict means a death sentence.
You got a 100% on the New York League of Conservation Voters’ latest scorecard. What are some of those environmental issues in your district that need to be tackled with immediacy?
The Bronx has historically ranked 62nd out of 62 (New York) counties for the unhealthiest county in the entire state of New York. It's not a title we’re proud of. And I think that that pretty much encapsulates all the issues with the Bronx. When you talk about a highway ripping through our borough, pumping out diesel carcinogens to children and families for decades, the highest asthma rates in the entire nation, that's then going to affect housing, that's then going to affect job markets. And all of that is going to trickle down.
So how we change this is by focusing on the root cause of the health of our borough. We need to address not just our food deserts and transit deserts, but we need to talk about federally funding and capping the Cross Bronx, which has for so long made so many people unhealthy in this borough. We need to talk about subsidizing some of these healthy food options, we need to talk about improving transit within our borough that is going to increase accessibility to housing and jobs and again outside these food deserts. But it's going to take a real focus.
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