May 17, 2017

In Jail – and in Peril: The Unfixable Environmental Hazards and Dangerous Design Flaws of Rikers Island

By The #CLOSErikers Campaign

In addition to the violence and deprivation of the jails, Rikers Island poses an unacceptable environmental risk to the individuals spending time on “Torture Island.”  This risk not only impacts those being detained, but also correction staff, maintenance staff, and healthcare providers.

In order to make the island suitable for development, landfill was transported from Manhattan. This means most of the facilities at Rikers are built on trash.  As it slowly decomposes, the garbage releases poisonous methane gas. Methane gas is highly combustible, and in high concentrations can replace the oxygen in air. For a human, even mild oxygen deprivation can result in nausea, headaches, and dizziness. The foundation of garbage also creates a foul odor, aggravated by the presence of industrial facilities and wastewater treatment plants. In early 2011, lawsuits were filed on behalf of seven Rikers employees against the City. Each of these employees had been diagnosed with cancer they believed was caused by exposure to the toxic landfill of the island. These employees described a strong, persistent chemical odor.  In fact, the release of methane gas from the ground was so frequent it commonly set off gas detectors. The plaintiffs believed jail officials were aware of the danger but did nothing to protect employees. The City denied these claims. The cases were consolidated and transferred to Federal court, where they remain today. 
Additional environmental issues pose serious health challenges. Rikers sits in the East River nestled between Hunts Point in the Bronx and LaGuardia Airport in Queens – areas well known for poor air quality and high levels of air pollution. Rates of death from asthma in the Bronx are about three times higher than the national average and hospitalization rates are approximately five times higher. Rikers shares nearly the same airspace as the mainland Bronx. Also, Rikers’s proximity to LaGuardia Airport further increases harm, exposing individuals to the emission of volatile organic compounds from jet fuel, substances hazardous to human health.  To make matters even worse, Rikers also houses a power plant providing energy for the island’s jails. This power plant emits significant amounts of matter known to threaten human health through increased risk of heart disease, lung cancer, and asthma attacks.  
In addition to the environmental hazards of Rikers, the jails also generate extreme temperature conditions, earning it the nickname “The Oven.” These conditions create more than mild discomfort – they can result in death.  In 2014, homeless veteran Jerome Murdough died in a Rikers cell on the mental health unit that was over 100 degrees. The medical examiner found the cause of death to be extreme heat exposure. In August 2013, Susi Vassallo, a New York University School of Medicine associate professor and national expert on heat-related deaths, conducted court-mandated temperature monitoring on Rikers. Vassallo called the temperature situation at Rikers “a serious health threat” and “unsafe for inmates.” Individuals with health concerns face severe danger when forced to suffer extreme temperatures. For example, asthma can be exacerbated, and individuals on psychotropic medications—which impair the body’s ability to cool itself by sweating— are at serious risk of overheating. 
The Jail Time Passed By
Time has passed Rikers by.  Its structure is medieval in concept and its physical deterioration makes it an unwise financial investment.  It is impossible to design a jail in the 21st century and end up with a facility like Rikers.  Height restrictions create long hallways, limiting visibility.  The island’s geographic isolation creates additional transportation costs.  For structural reasons, continuing to invest in repairing and reforming the island’s jail facilities is a waste of taxpayer dollars. The bridge transporting individuals to Rikers needs extensive repair.  According to expert reports and interviews with people who have previously been to or are currently held on Rikers, the facilities are falling apart. There are visible cracks in the buildings’ surfaces and foundations, peeling paint, missing tiles in both the walls and floors, corroded metal walls, damaged doors, and broken window screens.

In 2004, then-Department of Correction Commissioner Martin Horn explained to the Board of Correction how the island’s expansion to its present size nearly guaranteed architectural complications. The ground that the jail facilities stand on is composed primarily of ash and garbage. When garbage decomposes, it creates air pockets in the ground, which lead to the ground “settling.” This shifting and sinking does not occur in a uniform or predictable manner, leading to an unstable foundation. Furthermore, the settling causes cracks in the walls and ceilings of buildings, including new facilities, and damages the water pipes that run below the foundation, impacting the jail’s water supply. Continual repairs, remediation, and capital improvements are needed to keep the Rikers Island jails operating. The City’s Fiscal 2018-2027 Capital Commitment Plan included $1.9 billion for redevelopment and investment. This money could be better spent on a more humane criminal justice system, instead of reinvesting in a broken jail built on garbage.   
The crumbling infrastructure also endangers those at Rikers, contributing to the “culture of violence.” Improvised weapons constructed from decaying materials found on site are prevalent. A 2014 Board of Correction investigation found that “approximately 79% of the weapons found were shanks, shivs, or weapons fashioned from materials that [were] typically found in, or authorized for use in, the jails.”  
Rikers presents a number of challenges for New Yorkers who care about fairness and justice, challenges exaggerated by the environmental problems on the island and the physical issues with the facilities.  However, it is of the utmost importance that efforts to repair the failure of Rikers Island not be separated from the broader context of criminal justice reform. Rikers Island is the physical manifestation of the failed policies and practices that have led to mass incarceration. Attempts to reform Rikers Island consistently fail to address the issues that have led to the creation of this failed institution, in one of the most progressive cities in the US: lack of investment in low-income communities and communities of color; the criminalization of poverty, addiction and mental health issues; and systemic racism that helped propel the War on Drugs. 
Decades of attempts at reform prove that there is no way to simply “fix” Rikers Island - it must be closed. To truly support all New Yorkers and advance public safety, we must shift our resources and priorities toward investment in people and communities, not isolated physical structures that attempt to hide public health problems.  With the support of New Yorkers, and under the leadership of people who have suffered on Rikers, we can close Rikers and create a smaller, fairer, more humane criminal justice system in New York City.  

The #CLOSErikers Campaign, led by JustLeadershipUSA, in partnership with the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice, was formed in 2016 to break the political gridlock concerning Rikers Island and achieve real solutions that are guided by directly impacted communities. This is one of four recent policy briefs the campaign has published under the headline “Rikers: The Case for Closure.”  To view the entire series, go to the campaign’s web site at