What the Ongoing Efforts to Transform Rikers Island Can Teach Us About Achieving Bold Change

Written by Jeff Hebert, Bret Collazzi, and Cathy Li

Communities across America are seeking transformative change: to reform policing and reinvest in communities of color; to rethink tax structures and economic development systems; to make critical but costly investments in transit, energy, and broadband. All of these efforts face obstacles that can delay progress and deflate supporters: the need to overcome inertia and opposition, navigate budget and regulatory complexities, and demonstrate that a break from the status quo is feasible. In that context, the ongoing efforts to transform New York City’s Rikers Island – home to one of the nation’s most notorious urban jail systems – offer important lessons for how visions that once seemed aspirational can make progress toward reality.

The latest efforts to transform Rikers were launched in 2016 with several aims:

  1. To close the jails on Rikers, which as of 2016 housed 10,000 individuals, nearly 80% of whom were held before trial and 90% of whom were Black or Latino.
  2. To create a more humane criminal justice system with many fewer people in jail.
  3. To reimagine the island to honor survivors and promote justice and economic opportunity.

Since 2016, the City has committed to close Rikers by the end of 2027; cut the jail population nearly in half owing to cash bail reform, the decriminalization of low-level offenses, and other reforms; and approved a plan to rebuild smaller, safer, more accessible detention facilities near the borough criminal courts. Last month, the efforts to close Rikers reached an important milestone when the City Council formally embraced “Renewable Rikers,” a vision promoted by justice and environmental advocates to transform the island with green uses and to support economic and environmental justice. Council action begins to transfer the island out of the control of the Department of Correction and establishes a committee to guide reuse of the island that includes formerly incarcerated New Yorkers and justice and environmental advocates, with clear timelines for the City’s commitment to close the jails.

The efforts to close Rikers are still incomplete, and significant obstacles remain. The pandemic has sickened people housed on Rikers, and mass incarceration and mass homelessness continue, leading advocates to launch a new campaign for just reentry. With City budget deficits and elections for Mayor, City Council, and District Attorney looming, the momentum to close Rikers faces pivotal tests. But five years ago, it seemed inconceivable that the City would close Rikers; today there is a path forward and significant political momentum behind that goal.

That shift is a testament to vision and leadership from many groups and individuals. Leaders include organizers of the #CLOSErikers campaign, the Center for Court Innovation, and lifelong criminal justice reformer Herb Sturz. Here, based on interviews with participants and HR&A’s work supporting efforts to plan the future use of the island, we offer lessons for those contemplating similarly ambitious efforts:

Seize the urgency of the moment. Efforts to close the Rikers jails date back at least to the 1970s, led by incarcerated New Yorkers, their families, and justice advocates. These were unable to gain traction until the early 2010s when public attention was caught by damning investigations by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Legal Aid Society of violence on Rikers, the national rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the tragic suicide of 22-year-old Kalief Browder after three years on Rikers without a trial. Recognizing the moment, justice organizers launched the #CLOSErikers campaign, led by Rikers survivors and their families. Around the same time, then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito appointed an independent commission headed by former New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman to study closure and the reforms needed to achieve the goal.

Master the inside/outside game. The north star for advocates’ efforts was securing public support and a commitment from the Mayor and other officials. The #CLOSErikers campaign kept up outside pressure, holding rallies, spotlighting continued instances of abuse, and building an ever-broader constituency, while the Commission, led by respected former public officials like Lippman and Sturz, worked with stakeholders across government and the justice system and crunched the numbers to understand the realm of the possible. The Commission’s work laid out a detailed plan for closure, and the advocacy campaign helped change the public narrative and ensured that the City was firm in closing Rikers in its entirety by a date certain. These efforts laid the foundation for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and other agencies to make progress toward reducing the number of people in jail. Five years later, the Renewable Rikers campaign has employed a similar dynamic: a broad coalition led by justice and environmental organizers built political and community support to ensure that plans for the island’s future serve the needs of the individuals and communities most harmed by Rikers, while in the City Council, Council Member Costa Constantinides wrote legislation and navigated negotiations over use of the island.

Build a broad, multidisciplinary base of support. The Commission’s membership included former law enforcement and corrections officials, justice advocates, formerly incarcerated New Yorkers, business leaders, and philanthropists. This mix of voices aired concerns early and ensured the Commission’s recommendations held weight with all corners of the city and carried an aura of inevitability. An early decision by the Commission to study future uses for Rikers Island attracted interest from environmentalists and urban planners. Similarly, the broad coalition behind Renewable Rikers today demonstrates the synergy between justice and climate goals and represents a politically powerful coalition.

Focus on implementation from the outset. While all campaigns focus on what they want to see, the Rikers efforts gave equal weight to how to make it happen. What policy changes were needed to reduce the number of people in jail, and how could they be achieved? What should a smaller, off-Rikers jail system look like, and how should it operate? How long would the plan take and what would it cost? Dedicating time and resources to answer these questions chipped away at justifications for inaction, provided a roadmap for sustained advocacy, and equipped supporters with answers to skeptical audiences. Critical to this focus was assembling a team of credible, mission-aligned analysts. The Center for Court Innovation, the Vera Institute for Justice, and CUNY’s Institute for State and Local Governments led the Commission’s criminal justice analysis, while HR&A, FXCollaborative, Stantec, and others led the planning team that looked at the future use of Rikers. These planning processes adopted justice goals – for the island reuse plan, we began with: How can reuse support justice? – and then developed a process to advance those goals that could stand up to scrutiny and provide actionable guidance to City officials and advocates.

Keep up pressure to secure results. Campaign leaders have driven stakes in the ground to sustain momentum over election and economic cycles. Advocacy groups led by directly impacted people, such as the Freedom Agenda, continue to hold direct actions to keep elected leaders at every level accountable. The Commission, rather than disbanding, continues to support justice reforms required to achieve closure. Justice and environmental advocates built a coalition around Renewable Rikers.

While the efforts to close Rikers are only approaching halftime, the critical shift from aspiration to execution – sought a thousand times over in communities across the U.S. – offers hope for transformational change.