Testimony about the closure of Rikers Island heard in New York City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee

The executive director of the Independent Commission of New York City, Zachary Katznelson, on Wednesday testified about the plan to close Rikers Island, stating that the situation could not be more serious.

Last week, two men died in the custody of Rikers Islands, the latest in a long morbid list of lost souls. Herman Diaz, 52, reportedly lost his life after being strangled in an orange while no detectives were present to help him. This sharp shortage of staff in relation to inmates has been condemned by advocates for years, while staff themselves indicate dangerous and hellish working conditions.

With both inmates and detectives living in what those who have seen the eyes on the inside described as regrettable, the need to close Rikers Island is now said to be a race against time.

“Almost no one leaves Rikers better than when they walked in – not staff, not imprisoned people. Most of the people injured by Rikers are black or Latin. Closing the Rikers could not be more urgent, ”said Zachary Katznelson as he stood before the New York City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee on March 23.

The death toll reached 14 on Rikers Island in October 2021.Photo by Dean Moses

With the conditions reportedly being some of the worst in the entire state, Katznelson also testified that many of those experiencing these difficulties could actually be innocent of the crimes they are accused of.

“Nearly 90% of the people at Rikers are pre-trial and are destined to get a speedy trial. Still, 1,500 people have been in jail for over a year waiting for their day in court,” Katznelson said.

It is because of aspects like these that the CEO called the penal island as a “Terrible investment.” Katznelson says the facility costs taxpayers at least $ 750 million, and believes there are ways to alleviate an inflated system.

“A supportive home bed costs $ 42,000 a year. Rikers cost over $ 500,000 a year – and a victim may well have already been injured. The city should significantly increase its investment in supportive housing, including documented women and gender-expanding programs such as SHERO. To safely lower the number of prisons, the city should establish and fund population assessment teams made up of senior representatives from all courts. District by district, on a case-by-case basis, the teams would work together to investigate whether people in Rikers can be safely released with conditions and support, or whether their cases can be resolved, ”said Katznelson.

Also rebukes the notion that the prison ironically needs to be rehabilitated by having the facility renovated. Katznelson says the reconstruction of the Rikers would cost up to 15% more than building construction prisons, such as what had been dubbed a controversial mega-prison in Chinatown.

“The demolition and construction of an isolated former landfill plagued by methane and asbestos while working around an active prison complex is incredibly challenging and expensive. New prisons at Rikers would also do nothing to address the isolation that allowed the lawlessness and “the lack of accountability of the Rikers to last for decades. Borough prisons are the only realistic chance we have of closing the Rikers this generation. They are on pace and on schedule. It must continue,” Katznelson said.

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