The continuous reports of violence, illness, and inadequate infrastructure at Rikers Island come at a pivotal moment in New York City’s history. The collapse of jail operations is the consequence of decades of prioritizing incarceration over alternatives proven to increase community safety.
Despite the clear public health risks, the number of people detained at Rikers Island continues to be higher now than before the pandemic. The disparities in who is held at Rikers continue to be stark: nearly 90% of the people detained in the jail are Black and Hispanic; more than half have indications of mental illness. Defective facilities, deficient health resources, and severe staffing shortages have now resulted in the 14th reported death of a detained person at Rikers this year, the fifth death by suicide. Most of the people whose lives are at risk every day they spend at Rikers have yet to be found guilty of a crime. Of the nearly 6,000 people currently incarcerated, about 5,600 of them are awaiting trial.
Based on published reports, the situation is worsening inside the jail. We learned recently that a ban on solitary confinement—a practice cited by federal monitors in previous reports on the dangerous conditions inside Rikers—has been temporarily rescinded. The need for pre- and post-trial community-based alternatives to jail has never been more urgent.
For the Trustees of CASES, one of the most infuriating aspects of the horror happening at Rikers Island is that investments by the City in alternatives to jail and prison have consistently proven effective in increasing community safety and in supporting people to secure employment, en-gage in mental health and substance use treatment, and find housing. Since 1967—funded first and foremost through investments by New York City government—CASES ’programs have been at the forefront of working with court-involved people in community alternatives to incarceration that have consistently promoted concrete quality-of-life improvements while also—and not coincidentally—reducing recidivism.
New York City is a national leader in investing in and building an infrastructure of proven alter-natives to jail and prison. This infrastructure includes a range of nonprofit organizations like CASES that have the expertise and capacity to serve many of the people now being unnecessarily kept in life-threatening conditions at Rikers Island.
Now is the time for the City to fully realize the return on its investment and expand the use of alternatives to jail that are proven to make our city safer for all New Yorkers.