Renewable Rikers: NYC’s Journey to Climate and Criminal Justice

By Sasha Chajet-Wides

Source: Curbed NY

Imagine taking something that encompasses so much that is wrong in New York City, and turning it into something that will make our city better? Just 11 miles from Beacon High School there is an initiative to do just that. There is currently a plan, termed Renewable Rikers, which aims to turn Rikers Island, the city’s worst jail, into a renewable energy plant for New York City. According to city legislation, because of Rikers Island prison’s poor conditions, overcrowding, and general dysfunctionality, it has to be closed by 2027. Inmates in Rikers Island will move to new, smaller borough jails with much more humane conditions than the mega-jail that is Rikers Island prison. The barren island that will be left is the perfect place for a renewable energy power plant that the city wants to build. 

NYC currently gets about 85% of our city’s electricity from fossil fuel energy, which has terrible impacts on climate change and public health. Thus, the city has pledged to reduce our carbon emissions and stop fossil fuel dependency by 2040. Time is ticking, and the urgency of the climate crisis means we must act now, stop using fossil fuels, and instead generate renewable energy. Our city has struggled with both climate injustice and criminal injustice for years. Enacting Renewable Rikers would be the first step to repairing some of the damages that both of these phenomena have caused.

Background

It is essential to understand how we got to a place in which Rikers must be shut down. Rikers is New York City’s primary jail and houses over 4,800 detainees daily across the eight prisons on the island. Most inmates are not convicted felons; instead, they are people awaiting trial for nonviolent crimes. Unfortunately, most inmates can’t pay the bail set by the state and end up awaiting trial on Rikers Island for years, many eventually developing mental illness with suicide rates soaring on the Island. Because of how New York City and its justice system treat people of color, these detainees are primarily Black and Brown men, some of whom are under 18. In 2021, twelve detainees died on Rikers from suicide or gang violence. Additionally, the physical buildings are also falling apart, posing dangers to those living there. 

Alongside Rikers’ violence and poor treatment, since the island is on a landfill, there are terrible health conditions. That’s right. The island used to be a dumping ground for the city’s trash before becoming a prison complex. The methane fumes rising from the ground into the prison gives the people who live their health problems. Still, it’s difficult to get medical attention or access other resources due to the vast size, lack of resources, and understaffing. The New York Times reported that 572 guards were supposed to be on the work schedule to fill in 363 jobs across the island; only 302 guards showed up. The jail is not a livable place. As a result of such issues, there are concrete plans to shut the jail down, allowing the incarcerated people in Rikers to move from one big, old prison to multiple smaller new ones.

Renewable Energy

In 2019, one visionary City Councilmember from Queens, the Council’s Environmental Committee Chair Costa Constantinides, proposed using what will eventually be an empty island to generate renewable energy. The island could house 100 acres of solar panels. Those panels can provide enough power to replace fossil-fuel-burning plants. Additionally, there would be water treatment facilities on the island and battery storage for moments when we needed generators or backup energy for the city grid’s electricity. This would be an alternative to much of the fossil fuels we use to power the city’s electricity. The climate crisis is a global problem, but big cities like New York emit many gasses through our energy usage, so as a world leader, we must replace fossil fuels with renewable energy. One of the main things the island would be replacing is Peaker Plants which are there for times of crisis when the city needs extra power, like during a black-out or summertime. Peaker plants run on fossil fuels and emit terrible fumes into the air when they are on. They also cost a lot of money and aren’t reliable. In addition, peaker plants are located in low-income communities. Those communities have the highest child asthma rates in the city and the highest rates of school absences due to asthma-related illnesses. 

When many New Yorkers hear about climate change, they may understand that there is urgency but focus on the problems presented in the future. For low-income communities, the effects of climate change are already at their doors and impacting their livelihoods and their children. Coincidentally (or maybe not so), these are also the communities most affected by incarceration, and many of their residents end up on Rikers Island. This inequitable and unequal way our city is functioning is criminal injustice, racial injustice, economic injustice, and climate injustice. Renewable Rikers would be a solution to so many problems.

Enacting Renewable Rikers would lower mass incarceration rates and the city’s carbon footprint. Still, it would also have direct restorative justice impacts on the communities from which Rikers island and Peaker plants have taken so much. Their air would be cleaner, and the new borough jails would be safer than Rikers. 

Status of the Plan

The former mayor, Mayor de Blasio, signed the Renewable Rikers bill into law, but nothing more has happened to move forward on the plan. The next step is to form the Rikers Island Advisory Committee. The committee has to meet to assess what is possible for the island and how to achieve it. It will comprise 15 people: two picked by the mayor and seven by the city council. Former Mayor de Blasio had assigned some people to be on the committee, but there was never a formal meeting held, according to the lawyer Zachary Katznelson. After the change in administration, we don’t know if the same people will be on the committee or who and when will take the following steps to put the plan into motion. Even though the project is a law until the committee officially meets nothing can be done. It is crucial that the mayor and city council makes this a priority because the Rikers island prison and climate change are crises that the city has to deal with urgently. We need to hold politicians accountable and push them to support this solution to make our city better in countless ways. 

What you can do:

There is currently a petition with a goal of 1000 signatures for NYC 7-12 grade students to sign in support of moving forward with the Renewable Rikers plan. In the city, the signature of a child holds more weight in petitions. We are the next generation who will inherit this city and vote for its leaders. 

Direct demands of the petition:
1. For the mayor to announce his two appointments
2. For the speaker of the city council Adrienne E Adams to announce her seven appointments
3. To set a deadline for when the advisory committee will first be held.
4. Council members that have expressed support for the Renewable Rikers Act should issue public statements to advocate for it.
YOU CAN…
SIGN THE PETITION
– CONTACT YOUR CITY COUNCIL MEMBER ENCOURAGING THEM TO SUPPORT MOVING FORWARD WITH THE RENEWABLE RIKERS PLAN – CALL, EMAIL, SEND A LETTER
– SHARE THE PETITION: TEXT IT, PUT IT ON SOCIAL MEDIA

Signing and sharing the petition is not performative activism. They are steps toward a better future for the city, and ultimately the world.

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