How Rikers Island Became a Vehicle for Justice (Once It Started Shutting Down)

The Renewable Rikers plan to reimagine the site of New York City’s notorious jail complex could bring green jobs, cleaner air, and community investment to the neighborhoods most harmed by mass incarceration.

“Unfree is Unfair,” one of the many pieces of art created by Jairo during the time he was at Rikers

Credit: @freelinkslicka

Beginning in 2010, Anna Pastoressa spent every weekend on the crowded Q100 bus to Rikers Island to see her son, Jairo. The then 25-year-old was incarcerated at the sprawling 10-jail complex just east of Manhattan, a holding facility infamous for inhumane conditions, rampant abuse by guards, and solitary confinement, including for minors. On Pastoressa’s weekly visits, she witnessed some of these conditions for herself: the putrid smell of sewage, the decrepit buildings, the mistreatment by guards.

“It was like a world of its own that I had never known existed in this country,” Pastoressa says. “What happens there shouldn’t happen anywhere. It doesn’t matter that it’s a jail.”

An immigrant from Italy, Pastoressa had studied the U.S. constitution for her citizenship exam. She could recite her rights, she guessed, better than most natural-born Americans, and she knew the authorities were violating her son’s right to a speedy trial—an experience all too common at Rikers. In the end, Jairo was incarcerated at Rikers for six years before accepting a plea deal.

In 2016, Pastoressa joined a small but rapidly growing group of advocates, including formerly incarcerated people and their families, in calling for the complete closure of the Rikers Island jail complex. Soon after, she became a leader in the movement to close Rikers, and later one of the founding members of Freedom Agenda, a project of the Urban Justice Center helping to organize the fight to dismantle New York City’s unjust incarceration system and push for reforms in the police and court systems as well as for investments in communities.

“When we first started, we thought it was mission impossible,” Pastoressa says. “Even my neighbors were saying that it could never happen, that Rikers Island could never close.”

But Pastoressa and other advocates proved otherwise. Not only did they demand that New York City’s Department of Correction stop all incarceration activities on Rikers by August 2027, but the movement attracted a wide coalition of allies seeking to help further cultivate a cleaner, healthier, and more just city. The vision, called Renewable Rikers, includes work to transform the 413-acre island into a showcase of green jobs and infrastructure that could potentially help replace polluting power plants and promote public health in some of the same communities that have been affected by biased policing practices and mass incarceration policies.

“So much of my team’s advocacy is about helping to stop the next worst thing from happening,” says Sara Imperiale, a senior attorney for NRDC’s environmental justice program, “but this campaign is particularly exciting because, while it’s certainly about stopping harm, it’s also about an affirmative vision for the New York City that we want to build.”

Alongside Freedom Agenda, NRDC is among several environmental justice and incarceration reform groups—including New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI), the POINT Community Development Corporation, and the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform—that have been pushing for Renewable Rikers. In February, the city set the plan into motion when it passed a suite of three bills.

#CloseRikers campaign, 2016
Credit: Darren Mack/Urban Justice Center

The first bill, Intro 1592-A, gave the Department of Correction the deadline for its activities on Rikers, after which the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) will oversee operations on the island, in coordination with other agencies that could include the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Sanitation. It also calls for the establishment as early as this summer of a 15-person advisory committee that must include at least four people who’ve been directly impacted by incarceration on Rikers and at least three people with expertise in environmental justice or sustainability.

Even better, New Yorkers won’t have to wait until 2027 to see change. Beginning this summer and every six months thereafter, the mayor’s office must transfer any portions of Rikers Island that aren’t currently in active use by the jail complex over to DCAS. According to Imperiale, this means groups could start to seed New York City’s green future on the island as early as later this year.

The second and third bills that passed direct the city to conduct studies for new renewable energy infrastructure, battery storage, wastewater treatment projects, as well as organic waste composting facilities on Rikers. This research, expected to finish sometime next year, will help determine just what kind of initiatives will work best and what benefits New York City can hope to reap from these investments.

“Stolen Innocence: Youth in Rikers” by the Rikers Public Memory Project
Courtesy of the Urban Justice League/Rikers Public Memory Project

For instance, should a solar farm prove feasible, it could eventually generate enough electricity to reduce reliance on and potentially close one or more of the city’s fossil fuelburning power plants. Called “peaker plants” because they fire up whenever energy demand peaks, like on extremely hot or cold days, these facilities emit heavy loads of dangerous air pollution and are concentrated in communities of color, such as Brooklyn’s Sunset Park and the South Bronx.

“There are more than a dozen of these plants, and when operating, they chug away in their oldest and dirtiest form,” says Imperiale. “They're inefficient, expensive, and run on dirty fuels, without what we’d consider the basics of modern pollution-reduction technology.”

The Renewable Rikers project is based on a just transition model, designed to benefit the same communities that the jail complex and larger incarceration system have harmed the most. Around 87 percent of those jailed at Rikers are Black or Latino, despite those groups only making up about half the city's population. Importantly, the model works to ensure that the needs and experiences of those communities inform the project throughout the decision-making process, from the initial planning to the implementation phase.

The Joseph J. Seymour peaker plant in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, March 2020
Credit: Courtesy of NYC Environmental Justice Alliance

If a peaker plant were to shutter, for instance, local residents should then be able to decide for themselves how that newly freed up space in their neighborhoods could be put to better use—whether with community centers, public parks, or, say, green infrastructure to better protect against flooding.

“As the vision becomes more concrete,” says Melissa Iachán, an NYLPI attorney, “we want to ensure that, at every step, residents of environmental justice communities have a say, but even more so that survivors of Rikers who’ve returned home are leading the conversation.”

Rikers has been open for nearly a century, housing at least 5,000 people (and sometimes, twice that) on any given day. A looming question around the jail’s impending closure is how the city will adapt its detention policies and where any future detainees will go.

The coalition has some ideas.

For starters, dropping the daily tally of incarcerated people across the city down to no more than 3,300 would certainly help. This could be done through several methods, including addressing discriminatory policing practices and reducing pretrial detention. As of April 2021, more than 70 percent of people incarcerated in New York City were being held while waiting for trial, often because they could not afford to post bail. Advocates are also calling for reallocating community spending away from punitive measures and toward investments in education, addiction recovery, and other community resources. In addition, the coalition wants the city to build new holding facilities to replace four borough-based jails—the notorious “Tombs” in downtown Manhattan; “the Boat” in the Bronx; and the already shuttered Brooklyn House and Queens House, all of which Freedom Agenda’s co-director Sarita Daftary calls “old, decrepit, and inhumane.”

“We have to reimagine public safety. The U.S. system is just so heavily focused on punishment,” Daftary says. “What we really need is a system that focuses on people’s unmet needs and proactively meets those needs, so that people aren’t cycling into the system to begin with. That’s the real goal.”

Artwork by Cori Lin, created for the Freedom Agenda

cori nakamura lin |

Jairo was released in 2019, but Pastoressa wants to make sure that the experiences of her son and the thousands like him aren’t forgotten. That’s why the Pastoressas are participating in the Rikers Public Memory Project, an initiative to document the history of Rikers through storytelling, oral histories, and art—like the pieces Jairo, a talented street artist, created during his years of incarceration, often with just food coloring and toilet paper.

“We need to celebrate Rikers’ closing,” his mother says, “but we also need to remember what happened there. We don’t just want people who were incarcerated to know what happened. The whole world should know.”

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