Students: Reorienting New York: of Injustices in the US Criminalization System and Rikers Island



Columbia University (USA) / Instructor: Laura Kurgan (2016)

Rikers is the largest jail in New York City and has for many years housed most of the city’s jail population with at most 24,000 in the 1990s, under the Giuliani administration. As an island, it is in isolation from the rest of New York, physically disconnected from major public transportation, infamous for its stories of violence and inhumane living conditions that remain conveniently invisible from the public’s image of the city. This research aims to contextualize Rikers within NYC and render visible the relations between economic and socio-spatial injustices and the criminal justice system. The United States has the highest incarceration rates in the world, and although jails are temporary places where people who are presumed innocent are held until facing trial, they also set up the conditions for what has come to be known as mass-incarceration in the United States.

In the maps presented here, the city is symbolically reoriented by moving the confluence of 0 latitude and 0 longitude to be centered on Rikers island in recognition of the political nature of mapping that constructs our understanding of the world, allowing for the spatial relations of the jail complex to the center of the city to be narrated from a Rikers’ point of view.

According to data provided by the City Council in 2013, 16,663 people were detained in Rikers because they could not afford to post bail of $2,000 or less. Although the jail population has drastically shrunk by 2016, among 12,287 people held there, 6,237 were unable to post bail between $20 and $500. These are all detainees awaiting trial. Evidently, there is a strong correlation between income and people in jail. To further explore that relationship spatially, Stop and Frisk NYC police data from the same year is used as a representative sample of crimes and arrests in the city and is mapped comparatively to income (map 1), as well as race census data (map 2).

The Stop and Frisk data displayed on the maps, shows an overwhelming spatial overlap of arrests, poverty and racial minorities — where minorities are defined as Black African American and Hispanic, based on the census’ racial categories. Vulnerable populations that are already suffering the failures of economic and social structures are being disproportionately targeted and forced to face the arcane and opaque bureaucracy of the arrest and arraignment process as well as the shortcomings of a Kafkaesque bail system.

Added to this, the limited locations where you can post bail in New York City, an unforgiving 3-hour period after arraignment when transfer to jail can be avoided by paying bail in court (see diagram above) and an overall obsolete, cash only policy, the bail system is hostile by design towards individuals and families who are lacking an adequate financial and legal support system. It is becoming clear that the criminal justice system, the bail system and, by extension, the Rikers jail complex carry with them some of mass incarceration’s worst traits: racial bias, income bias and a rigid and arcane bureaucracy. As stated in the #CLOSErikers studio brief “Rikers is at once a symbol of a discriminatory and dysfunctional criminal justice system, an artifact of this country’s mass incarceration epidemic, and an actually existing catastrophe.” Change is imperative.

On March 31, 2017, NYC mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city’s intention to close Rikers down within the next decade and replace it with smaller borough jails. Closing down a symbol of a discriminatory criminal justice system is an essential step towards rethinking mass incarceration in the US, and New York City could provide a great model for the rest of the country, but it would be simplistic to believe it is enough by itself to dismantle systemic injustice. If there is one takeaway from the spatial analysis performed for this research, it is that if Rikers is a failing and inhumane institution it is because it is reflecting larger complex urban, racial and socioeconomic injustices specific to NYC. Simply relocating and decentralizing the jail facilities will not resolve the underlying causes of racialized mass incarceration. This is a moment for NYC to work toward the comprehensive redesigning of the criminal justice system, rendering it visible and perceptible to the public in order to trigger discourse and think about alternatives to the prevailing culture of punishment and incapacitation as a way of dealing with pressing social issues that can be solved with alternatives to jails and prisons, so that Rikers’ legacy can end with its closing.

Ioannidou Funambulist 1
Diagram of the first 24 hours from arrest to arraignment and detention, including court and bail posting locations.
Ioannidou Funambulist 2
(Map 1) Matrix map that classifies the city’s census blocks based on median household income and amount of arrests.
Ioannidou Funambulist 3
(Map 2) Matrix map that classifies the city’s census blocks based on percentage of minority population and amount of arrests.