The History of Rikers Island Proves That Reform Is Not Possible

City leaders have asked for our trust to start with another vast prison building, worth nearly $ 10 billion dollars. But we can learn from the history of “reform” on Rikers Island, and Blackwell’s Island before it. ‘

DOC Archives by the International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice

Prison dormitories on Rikers Island in 1916.

Segundo Guallpa was one of 12 people lost to New Yorkers in the deadly care of the Department of Corrections just this year. Mr. Guallpa’s story showing the dark heart of our city’s rectification history: we have tried repeatedly to use caging to solve our problems. In a city whose leaders only offer a hammer, every problem is a nail. But if a hundred years of crisis and “reform” on Rikers Island have shown us nothing else, it is that incarceration will not, and will not, save us. It’s time for us to try something new: invest, not in new prisons, but in our city’s families and communities – and in recovery programs which refers to the underlying causes of violence.

Luz Gualman, Mr. Guallpa’s wife of 37 years, decided to include the criminal legal system in her marriage, after years of worsening damage, because she wanted to “give the criminal justice system a chance” to resolve the issues. problems of his family. Her husband’s substance use disorder created an unsafe home, marked by violent abuse. Ms. believes. Gualman that Mr. Guallpa’s substance use was triggered by a series of traumatic events, he told reporters, including a nearly fatal assault and robbery in 2013, after his drinking reached new, frightening heights. Ms.Gualman wanted for her husband, but instead of treatment for both her alcoholism and the underlying trauma with which she uses alcohol to cope, Mr. Guallpa was sent to a cage. He committed suicide on Rikers Island less than two weeks after he was arrested.

What you in power believe is that the violence and death the Rikers catch will be solved by the next prison, which ”modern and humane”Just one of the next horizons. They told us that this new prison system will provide “space for quality education, health, and therapeutic programs.” But the history of Rikers itself shows us that this reform was not possible; that prisons cannot address the underlying social problems we have asked them to solve.

Even before Mr. Guallpa set foot on Rikers Island, 136 years ago, a “fun idea suggested itself” to the New York City Charities and Corrections Commissioners: purchase of Rikers Island which will build “a massive model of penitentiary, large enough to serve many years to come and which in all its plans and parts should be the most perfect prison in the world.” The Commissioner sought to resolve the “emergency” of violence and overcrowding at the predecessor of Rikers Island on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island). Rikers Island would be the solution: a humane, progressive prison created in consultation with the “best authorities in Europe.”

As detailed by Jarrod Shanahan and Jack Norton in A Jail to End All Imprisonments, “From its inception, Rikers has been a place of abuse and corruption.” But in 1954, inspired by the spirit of the progressive Period of the 20th Century, a reformist manager named Anna Moscowitz Kross took control of the Department of Corrections. Kross believed that the city’s detention system “does not correct, although we are a Corrections Department.” To realize his vision to make treatment and rehabilitation the DOC’s primary care, Kross brought in social workers, clinicians, and educators to augment the cadre of traditional correctional officers. At that time, the city’s incarcerated population was scattered in various borough-based facilities, which were also notoriously notorious for frivolous conditions and violent abuse. Kross sought to consolidate all of the city’s rectification facilities into Rikers Island. He believes that the rehabilitative model can only be realized through closing the borough -based prisons and construction of new gender- and youth -specific facilities in Rikers.

But Anna Kross did not leave a legacy of “humane conditions” on Rikers Island; the new jail at Rikers was plagued with as much violence and suffering as the decades before and after his tenure. Instead, Kross’s legacy is found in the massive expansion of the city’s incarceration capacity on Rikers Island, realizing his liberal vision of reformist use of the island, the “penitentiary model,” as the chief response to social ills. of the city. As such, the inmate population rose to new heights, rising from 6,667 in 1954 to 9,000 in 1960. That increase would continue unabated for decades, until Rikers became the largest prison in the country, at the top of more than 20,000 in 1991. It was at the Anna M. Kross Center, the largest facility on Rikers Island, that many people died in 2021. The building is a monument to the failure of Rikers progressive reform.

Commissioner Kross’s reforms should be familiar. They are parts and parcels of carceral humanist which undergirds the plan to build “modern and humane” borough -based prisons to replace Rikers Island. The same arguments Kross used to convince city leaders to fund his reform project in Rikers have been resubmitted. Instead, reformers now claim that Rikers ’problems can only be solved by the borough-based system we left behind 60 years ago. The city’s prison plan resonated with echoes of the reformers ’past, claimed that these new prisons will be completely different, “designed to strengthen safety and well -being,” with a “network of support systems” with treatment and rehabilitation at their center. Just as Anna Kross promised before. But will the new prisons solve the problems plaguing Segundo Guallpa, Luz Gualman, and their families?

City leaders have asked for our trust to start with another vast prison building, worth nearly $ 10 billion dollars. But we can learn from the history of “reform” on Rikers Island, and Blackwell’s Island before it. We can learn from the massive new jails being built in cities like New Orleans that are still scattered death and despair. As Mariame Kaba warned at a Council hearing in 2019: “We will return to this room, I promise you, in 10 years, if these four new facilities are built, calling these facilities inhumane.”

Imprisonment is the problem, not the solution. We need to ask for something new: the kind of investment in our communities that can address the underlying problems, the ones we have long sought to hide in trash island.

Nicholas Barber is a New York -based writer and advocate most recently working at the Southern Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit law office that challenges the legacies of violent racism in Georgia and Alabama’s criminal legal systems.

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