The past and present of Rikers Island can tell you a lot about the United States. Richard Riker—the owner of the island, which had been in his slave-owning Dutch-German family since the 1660s—was an integral part of a kidnapping ring that sold black people in the North back to slavery in the South under the Fugitive Slave Act. As New York City’s City Recorder, Riker would issue certificates of removal for those captured to be deported without a whisper of due process. The Riker family sold the land today known as Rikers Island in 1884, after which point it began its long transition into something much closer to its current usage: a penal colony. Trash was brought in on barges from Manhattan to build out the island to accommodate a massive jail complex, which took on its first inmates in 1932. Today, 80 percent of its land mass is landfill. Pockets of methane created by decomposing garbage routinely burst, shaking the island and endangering anyone around. That’s mainly inmates—90 percent of whom are people of color—but guards and prisoners alike have complained about the toll any prolonged time spent on the island can take on your health. Heat in the summer can be unbearable, which has lent to its ominous nickname: “The Oven.” In a detailed account of the island’s environmental justice horror show, reporter Raven Rakia noted at Grist that, as temperatures rise, six of the island’s 10 facilities lack air conditioning. Like other prisons, Rikers has also been a hot spot for Covid-19.
After decades of lawsuits and controversy and a concerted campaign by former inmates and activists, the New York City Council finally voted to close down Rikers Island’s jail facilities within a decade last fall. In addition to an ongoing debate about whether the city will build replacement facilities or instead commit itself to drastically reducing the number of people it incarcerates, there’s the question of what to do with the island itself. If Rikers Island has come to symbolize the cruelty of the carceral system, what’s built in its wake could help signal a way forward.
As the movement to close Rikers gained momentum, a cross section of environmental and criminal justice groups began meeting to discuss plans for what might come next. “Rather than get into a battle with real estate titans of New York City, we wanted to get out ahead of that and stake our claim for Rikers to no longer be the city’s penal colony but a resource of clean energy, jobs, and redistributive justice,” Cecil Corbin-Mark, the deputy director and director of policy initiatives at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, told me.
City Councilor Costa Constantinides’s Queens district includes Rikers and features some of the city’s worst air quality and highest rates of Covid-19 deaths. Working with WE ACT and the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, among others, he has introduced a series of three bills known collectively as a plan for a Renewable Rikers. The first bill would transfer the deed for the island away from the Department of Corrections to another to-be-determined agency. The second and third bills would begin official studies from the city to determine the island’s capacity for renewable energy and new wastewater treatment infrastructure, to replace several outdated facilities throughout Queens. An initial study by the CUNY Center for Urban and Environmental Reform, in 2019, found siting solar on just one-quarter of the island would generate enough power for the city to close down all of the massively polluting gas-fired secondary, or “peaker,” plants established decades ago, with scant public input, in the Five Boroughs’ black and brown communities, whose residents have been disproportionately likely to end up on Rikers at some point in their lives.
For the last five years, WE ACT—which developed and has been a major proponent of the Renewable Rikers plan—has operated the Solar Uptown Now, or SUN, initiative in partnership with the nonprofit Solar One, training Northern Manhattan residents for jobs working in renewable energy. Out of that has sprung the cooperative Solar Uptown Now Services, which WE ACT hopes can bid on contracts for renewable energy development on Rikers. “We would often have to tell people, we don’t care about your police record. We only care about the record that you develop in this program,” Corbin-Mark said. Federal grants for similar training programs, he explained, prohibit them from accepting formerly incarcerated people, creating major barriers in communities where encounters with police are commonplace and, in many cases, brutal. And those with records who do receive training in solar installation can face further barriers to getting jobs once they’re credentialed. As Corbin-Mark put it, “How could policing not impact the work that we do?”
Renewable Rikers is not the only proposal on the table but is the most fleshed out, so far. There’s been talk of making Rikers the home for another runway for LaGuardia Airport, or even real estate development. Because its foundations are so toxic, doing much of anything on Rikers is likely to require extensive land remediation. With many details still to be worked out, Renewable Rikers advocates are keen to see those plans move forward on a democratic footing. “We want as many people as possible at the table,” Constantinides told me. “The most important thing is to have communities that have been overpolluted and overpoliced be the primary voices at that table. Those need to be the voices that we’re hearing the loudest.”
Environmental and climate justice groups have long pushed for this sort of approach, which they hope will inform emissions reductions plans at all levels of government. WE ACT’s expansive Northern Manhattan Climate Action Plan, for example, was drafted through a series of public workshops involving hundreds of community members, meetings with city agencies, and input from partner organizations from around the city and across the U.S. “Our community has a capacity to think holistically, and they do that because it’s necessary for their survival,” Corbin-Mark told me. “They cannot escape the very wicked problems that plague their lives. They also can’t escape the original pandemic, which is racism in this country. And so by necessity when you give to our communities the tools to envision and imagine what the future should look like, […] they come up with visions that are more expansive and resilient, because they are trying to figure out by necessity how to solve the many challenges that this society has laid at their doorstep.”
Following controversies over New York City power provider ConEdison and a series of blackouts last summer, Constantinides has also championed bringing the utility under public ownership. Despite its black and brown residents having some of the highest energy burdens in the country and the supposed reliability provided by polluting peaker plants, Queens has lost power provided by ConEd a number of times in the last year—including when temperatures soared to nearly 100 degrees. Outrage over citywide outages and persistent mismanagement has caused even Mayor Bill De Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo to put a public takeover of ConEd on the table. Constantinides called Renewable Rikers the “quintessential public power project,” adding that the investor-owned utility “shouldn’t own this or be dictating how this power would work.” Though details of any renewable development on the island are pending further study, there’s some possibility that energy generated there could fall under the purview of the already-public New York Power Authority.
Like many initiatives, the legislative push for Renewable Rikers has stalled amidst Covid-19. The three bills appeared to have some support before the pandemic fully set in. Speaker Corey Johnson has reportedly been enthusiastic and was set to include the proposal in his canceled State of the City address. Constantinides’s office hopes that next steps can be taken as soon as government restrictions allow; it’s also not unrelated to the conversations that have occupied much of the city government’s time in recent weeks. As city officials debate not whether but by how much to defund the NYPD, Renewable Rikers can offer a tangible example of what organizers in the movement to close Rikers have long advocated: to complement divestment from police with investment in safer and healthier communities. The result could have Richard Riker turning in his grave.