Bronx Defenders’ Statement of Principles on the Closing of Rikers Island and the Creation of Borough-Based Jails

The Bronx Defenders supports the call to close Rikers Island.  For far too long we have seen the negative impact of Rikers on our clients, their families and loved ones, and on the Bronx community more broadly.  We acknowledge the vast challenges presented by this undertaking and the numerous stakeholders whose voices must inform a reimagined pretrial justice system without Rikers.  But these challenges should not prevent the City from taking the necessary, difficult, and long overdue steps to close what has become a destructive source and symbol of mass incarceration.

We support replacing Rikers Island with smaller, local borough-based facilities.  We are guided in our advocacy by the following principles:

  • Pretrial detention is fundamentally incompatible with the presumption of innocence.  As such, any new facility must be limited in size, have significantly reduced capacity, and be designed to exert constant downward pressure on the use of pretrial detention.  We stand in solidarity with those who call for shrinking both the physical and institutional footprint of our jail system.  The incarceration of presumptively innocent people cannot be reconciled with the core principles of our criminal legal system.  And at a time when more and more people recognize the harm of incarcerating people, expanding jail capacity would send the wrong message and invite more detention.  The design of any new facility must reflect our most basic constitutional commitments and counteract political incentives to “fill unused beds” by facilitating and encouraging further decarceration, for example, by making it easy to convert spaces for non-carceral uses.
  • We wholeheartedly support locating any Bronx-based facility close to the Bronx Criminal Court.  The machinery of incarceration must be proximate and visible to those tasked with administering and dispensing justice.  To sequester jails away from courts risks recreating the same excesses and abuses that led to the call to close Rikers. Locating the facility close to the courts would also facilitate transportation and accessibility, reduce court delay, encourage the involvement of broader client support networks, and provide visibility and accountability to the community at large.  
  • We are vehemently opposed to any plan to relocate Criminal Court arraignments to a new borough-based facility.  Holding arraignments—where our clients first appear before a judge and where initial bail/pretrial detention decisions are made—at a detention facility would send the message that pretrial detention is the norm.  This runs counter to the presumption of innocence that governs pretrial proceedings. Moreover, separating arraignments from the rest of the court process would cause confusion for our clients’ families and friends and make accessing the resources in and around the courthouse more difficult. Unlike regular jail visits, which take place during daytime hours and for which family members can plan in advance, arraignments take place at all hours and happen unexpectedly.  Access to additional transportation options as well as bail bondsmen, banks, restaurants and other businesses near to the Criminal Court building is critical for families dealing with the arrest of a loved one.
  • The facility must facilitate reentry into communities.  The design of the new facility must represent a sharp break with the present design of Rikers.  Housing and programmatic spaces must be therapeutic, not punitive, and be built to facilitate access to support networks, educational and employment opportunities, and robust healthcare in order to make reentry seamless.

In order to fully realize these guiding principles, The Bronx Defenders believes that the process of selecting a future location for a Bronx-based jail facility must center the voices of our clients and their families in the conversation and include robust community engagement that incorporates all community stakeholders and creates community-building opportunities.  Our clients are also members of the Bronx community. As an indigent defense organization, we stand shoulder to shoulder with them in seeking a just and humane system.