Testimony to close Rikers Island heard at New York City Council Committee on Criminal Justice

The executive director of the Independent Commission on the City of New York, Zachary Katznelson, testified Wednesday regarding the proposed closure of Rikers Island, saying the situation couldn’t be more serious.

Last week, two men perished in the custody of Rikers Island, the latest in a long and morbid list of lost souls. Herman Diaz, 52, is believed to have died after choking on an orange when no corrections officer was present to help him. This glaring lack of staff in relation to the detainees has been decried by defenders for years, while the staff themselves declare dangerous and hellish working conditions.

With officers incarcerated and corrections officers residing in what those who have laid eyes inside have described as deplorable, the need to close Rikers Island is now seen as a race against time.

“Hardly anyone leaves the Rikers better off than when they entered – not the staff, not the incarcerated. Most people injured by the Rikers are black or Latina. Shutting down Rikers couldn’t be more urgent,” Zachary Katznelson said, before the New York City Council’s Committee on Criminal Justice on March 23.

The death toll reached 14 on Rikers Island in October 2021.Photo by Dean Moses

With conditions said to be among the worst in the entire state, Katznelson also testified that many of those who experience these hardships may, in fact, be innocent of the crimes with which they are charged.

“Nearly 90% of people at Rikers are in the pretrial phase and are supposed to get a speedy trial. Yet 1,500 people have been in jail for over a year awaiting their day in court,” Katznelson said.

It is because of such aspects that the Executive Director called Penal Island a “terrible investment”. Stating that the facility is costing taxpayers at least $750 million, Katznelson thinks there are ways to relieve a bloated system.

“A bed in supportive housing costs $42,000 a year. Rikers cost more than $500,000 a year – and a victim may very well have already been injured. The City should significantly increase its investments in supportive housing, including women-struggling and gender-specific programs like SHERO. To safely reduce the prison population, the City should establish and fund population review teams made up of senior representatives from each justice agency. Borough by borough, on a case-by-case basis, teams would collaboratively consider whether people from Rikers can be released safely, with conditions and support, or whether their cases can be resolved,” Katznelson said.

Also chastising the idea that the prison should, ironically, be rehabilitated by having the facility refurbished. Katznelson says rebuilding Rikers would cost up to 15% more than building borough jails, like what had been dubbed a controversial mega-jail in Chinatown.

“Demolishing and constructing an isolated old methane and asbestos infested landfill, while having to work around an active prison complex, is incredibly difficult and expensive. New prisons on Rikers would also do nothing to remedy to the isolation that has allowed Rikers’ anarchy and lack of accountability to fester for decades. Borough jails are the only realistic chance we have of shutting down Rikers this generation. They’re on schedule. and on schedule. This needs to continue,” Katznelson said.

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