The Vision of a Renewable Rikers Island in NYC

YES MAGAZINE, Claire Greenburger, November 18, 2023

This community-developed plan could serve as a model for how to simultaneously decarcerate and decarbonize.

Along, narrow bridge spanning the East River in New York City is the sole link between two realities. To the south, the familiar city skyline stands tall. To the north, walls of barbed wire enclose the site of an ongoing human rights crisis: the Rikers Island jail complex. This bridge, known to justice-impacted New Yorkers as “the bridge of pain,” is a constant reminder of their isolation from loved ones. 

Rikers, located on an island between the boroughs of Queens and the Bronx, is one of the largest jail complexes in the United States. It houses nearly 6,000 people, the vast majority of whom are pretrial defendants who have not been convicted of a crime. 

Rikers is notorious for its dire conditions and high death rates. “Almost everybody is worse off for spending any amount of time at Rikers,” says Zachary Katznelson, policy director at the Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform. “It’s an incubator of violence and misery.” 

Since the beginning of 2022, 28 people have died on Rikers. Correctional officers doled out 400 head strikes since the beginning of last year, compared to 52 at Los Angeles County jails during the same period, despite L.A.’s larger jail population and notoriety for use of excessive force.

Hope Sanders. Courtesy of Freedom Agenda, photo by Edwin Santana

“It’s a dark and dank and dreary place,” says Hope Sanders, who was sent to Rikers in the mid-’90s at age 16. It was clear to her as soon as she arrived that “[Rikers] was unsafe for children” like herself. “The officers called us ‘animal-lescents,’” she says. Sanders vividly remembers the stench of rotting garbage, as well as mice, roaches, and the “terrible” air quality. 

Beyond the well-documented issues of violence and neglect, there is another hidden danger that looms at Rikers: The jail was built on a landfill, and its decomposing garbage emits methane gas. “We know that methane does very bad things to human beings, in addition to what it does for the climate,” says Rebecca Bratspies, law professor at the City University of New York School of Law and director of the Center for Urban Environmental Reform

But some advocates envision a different future for this island. In response to the shocking reports of violence and toxic conditions at the facility, justice-impacted individuals devised a plan to shut down the jail and repurpose the island. The Renewable Rikers plan aims to transform the facility into a hub for renewable energy—a source of hope amid the ongoing threats of violence and climate change. The proposed project seeks to benefit the people and communities that Rikers has historically harmed. 

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A Toxic Foundation

In 1884, the year New York City bought Rikers Island, it occupied less than 88 acres. In the following decades, the city hauled in garbage and ash to expand the landmass, with the landfill labor performed almost entirely by incarcerated people. By 1932, when the jail opened, the island had more than quadrupled in size to 413 acres. 

The landfill is a weak foundation for the buildings on Rikers, contributing to crumbling infrastructure. Katznelson describes seeing blankets covering the floors to absorb the rainwater flooding one building during a recent visit. He says the buildings are “so far gone” that they are not fixable and even serve as a source of weapons at Rikers, posing yet another safety risk to those inside. “You can just break [a piece] off almost anywhere, and you can use it as a weapon. It’s just a living, dangerous thing,” Katznelson says. 

Isolating toxic waste and polluting industries in minority and lower-income communities is a common practice in this country, and that inequity is exacerbated in prisons. As in the greater U.S. prison population, Black and Latinx individuals are disproportionately incarcerated at Rikers, which pulls 90% of its population from these groups, who represent just 52% of NYC’s general population.

One-third of state and federal prisons in the U.S. are located within 3 miles of a federal Superfund site. Exposure to these hazardous waste sites poses a threat to incarcerated people’s health, but due to the terms of their incarceration, they have no way to escape this threat.