People pace the bus stop at Queensboro Plaza on a Saturday before New York City’s covid-19 shelter-in-place order. They are waiting for the Q100 bus, which serves as the only modes of public transportation with a direct route to Rikers Island, the location of New York City’s largest jail complex. Metal containment fences capped with large, looping swaths of barbed wire separate the 167.14 hectare island from the East River, holding approximately 7,000 people who await trial, often unable to pay bail.
As many press and expert reports have described, Rikers’ jails are rife with violence and unsanitary conditions, which is why the city plans to close the facility tentatively in 2026. In October 2019, the New York City Council approved an $US8 ($11) billion plan to close the jail complex and replace it with four smaller jails. When the council approved the 2020-2021 city budget in summer 2020, it set a plan to push back the jails’ funding timeline by a fiscal year. Capital funds will now be scheduled through 2027, rather than 2026.
What will happen to Rikers Island after the jail complex’s closure is the subject of intense debate, amplified in the wake of nationwide protests against police brutality, racist policing practices, and the prison system in the U.S. One idea proposed the possibility for reparative racial justice that centres on the certainty that the most marginalised people experience the worst of pollution.
In January 2019, City Council Member Costa Constantinides — whose district includes Rikers — put forward one of the more ambitious visions for the island during his State of the District Address: A bill called the Renewable Rikers Act that would create a sustainability hub on the site of the former prison. Constantinides partnered with Rebecca Bratspies, the founding director of CUNY Law School’s Centre for Urban Environmental Reform, to devise a proposal that centered on racial justice.
“Rikers is particularly suitable for sustainable energy generation because then it could be a part of a reparative environmental justice process,” Bratspies told Gizmodo. “We can use renewable energy generation to remove the polluting infrastructure that was forced on some of the poorest communities in the city who are also most impacted by incarceration on Rikers.”
Bratspies said the bill is a reparative process because racial bias contributes to high arrest rates and poverty in predominantly Black and brown communities. Black people are incarcerated at a rate approximately five times higher than white people in state prisons, according to a 2016 report by the Sentencing Project. Black people are also arrested more often for minor offences. According to the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, from March 17 to May 4 of this year, the police arrested 40 people for social distancing violations in Brooklyn, and 35 of the people were Black. This is also a trend shown throughout history. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the drug war, which began in 1971, “has produced profoundly unequal outcomes across racial groups” in terms of arrests, which “manifested through racial discrimination by law enforcement.” This disproportionately affected Black people.
This racial bias creates a cycle in which New York City’s poorest communities have the highest arrest rates. Many of those who are arrested cannot afford bail and have to await trial on Rikers, taking them away from work and further entrenching poverty. These same communities are also most affected by air pollution from power plants that supply the entire city with electricity, but are disproportionately located in low-income neighbourhoods, according to a 2017 report that inspired both Constantinides and Bratspies.
After introducing the bill during his State of the District, Constantinides officially set the legislative wheels in motion in June 2019, at a bi-monthly meeting where council members share or vote on new legislation. The council assigned the bill to the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection for review.
Renewable Rikers aims to use the island for energy generation and waste management, allowing the city to close plants in the outer boroughs. The bill outlines three steps to make this happen. First, transfer jurisdiction of Rikers from the U.S. Department of Corrections to the Department of Environmental Protection. Second, measure how much energy can be generated on the island. Third, determine whether a new wastewater treatment plant could be constructed on the island. For Constantinides, the second section is the core of the bill.
In January 2020, there was a hearing on turning Rikers into an energy hub, but the fate of the island has yet to be determined. However, there’s more urgency now after a surge of protests against police violence, the carceral state, and racial disparity in covid-19 health outcomes (and the link with air pollution). These overlapping crises reinforce the statements of Constantinides, Bratspies, and many advocates to change racial disparity in all forms, including environmental. The Renewable Rikers plan represents a move toward reparative environmental justice.
In 2016, former City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito formed an independent commission of lawyers and researchers to imagine a world without Rikers jail. New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman chaired the commission and HR&A Advisors, an urban planning firm, conducted research. The resulting report, dubbed the Lippman Report, proposed several alternative uses for Rikers, including transforming it into a centre for renewable energy.
“Our concept included a 46.54 ha solar field and a greater amount of rooftop solar panels,” Brett Collazzi, a principal advisor at HR&A, told Gizmodo. “Together, those sources could generate an estimated 93 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 23,000 households.”
“I think it’s absolutely feasible to put solar panels and other green infrastructure on the island,” Tyler Nims, executive director of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, who also did research for the Lippman Report, told Gizmodo. “That’s probably the most feasible use as far as the analysis that we did.”
Although eight City Council members said they strongly support the Renewable Rikers Act, its passage remains uncertain. The feasibility of building renewable energy infrastructure on the island has not been determined. Vasilis Fthenakis is not involved with the Renewable Rikers Act, but he has worked on solar projects. The Columbia University scientist said that Rikers probably has enough acreage to support solar infrastructure, but that there might not be enough light. New York City is often overcast, and the days get shorter as summer ends. Fthenakis said a combination of solar and wind power might be a better choice.
“You have more wind power toward the evening when you have less solar,” Fthenakis told Gizmodo. “So, they actually complement each other.”
To Bratspies, the Lippman Report raised one of the first realistic opportunities for ridding poor communities of peaking power plants, which only come into service when the city needs peak energy, during, say, hot days when air conditioners are in full use. According to the New York League of Conservation Voters, peaking plants emit 30 times more nitrogen oxide — a form of toxic air pollution — than a modernised natural gas-fired power plant and they are less regulated by the city.
The plants are in the Bronx and Queens, which already experience high rates of pollution. Mott Haven, a predominantly Black Bronx neighbourhood, is referred to as “Asthma Alley” because of the high prevalence of asthma tied to pollution. The borough’s asthma rate among children is 15.5% compared with 9.2% for city children overall, according to a study conducted by Karen Warman of Montefiore Medical Centre. In the Bronx, 43.6% of the population is Black, 56.4% of the population is Latino, and 27.9% of the population is in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Constantinides and Bratspies’ plan to build more environmentally safe energy infrastructure on Rikers Island after the jail complex closure would hopefully close or decrease the use of plants surrounding the Bronx, Queens, and predominantly Black neighbourhoods with increasing health crises.
Awareness that the same populations of people experience disproportionate environmental harm — like pollution — and the resulting health crises, racism, and incarceration is not new. In 1982, Benjamin Chavis, the executive director of the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ, said, “environmental racism is racial discrimination in environmental policymaking, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of colour for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities.”
The connections between pollution, race, and incarceration that Bratspies, Constantinides, and their colleagues are trying to address with Renewable Rikers are familiar to many experts. The Act “sounds aligned, I think, with what I’m hearing from folks who are organising in the abolitionist movement,” said Nadia Owusu, Living Cities’ associate director for learning and equity. “To me, it seems like it’s acknowledging past harm and environmental impact, and the poisoning that has been done to communities of colour. Like in Flint, where there is still no safe drinking water.”
Owusu is an urban planner who focuses on affordable housing, but her personal interests led her to learn about Rikers Island and criminal justice in New York City.
“You know, I am Black, and I have brothers who have experienced that sort of police harassment,” Owusu said. “Especially with the kind of work I do, I started to feel some urgency to better understand.”
The summer began with widespread protests over the murder of George Floyd and the many Black lives taken by police. Protesters have put out a list of demands, including calls to defund the police and environmental justice.
Mychal Johnson co-founded South Bronx Unite, a coalition of organisations and activists who petition and put forward solutions to the pollution problem in the South Bronx, where Mott Haven is located. He wasn’t referring specifically to the Renewable Rikers plan, but he explained that there are other contributing factors to the pollution in Mott Haven, like emissions from cars and that more complex urban planning solutions beyond just closing the plants are necessary for lasting change. While the Renewable Rikers plan may be a first step, continued action is necessary.
“It’s an environmental injustice, and I think people know about this from around the city,” Johnson told Gizmodo, referring to the pollution in the South Bronx.
On Rikers Island, visitors walk under a sign that states in all caps, “through these portals … pass the world’s boldest officers” into the main security checkpoint. The sign still stands, now in contrast with the ever more prevalent discussions about racial inequality, police brutality, the restrictive nature of bail, and the conditions within Rikers. Bratspies’ said the re-imagining of the island as a renewable energy hub a small step toward reparative environmental justice.
“What really interests me are the social implications of science, how it affects people’s lives, particularly the air people breathe and the water they drink,” she said. And the fact, she said, that not everyone breathes the same air or drinks the same water. A fact that many who live in the shadows of Rikers — and marginalised communities throughout the world — already knew.
Jean Lee is a reporter and writer in Brooklyn. She’s a Master’s student at Columbia Journalism School.