Regional Plan Association Testimony for the New York City Council on Introductions 1591, 1592 and 1593 (The “Renewable Rikers” Act).

Dear City Council Committee Members: thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony. My name is Lauren Tsuboyama and I am the Director of Communications at Regional Plan Association. RPA is a non-profit civic organization that conducts research, planning and advocacy to improve economic opportunity, mobility, environmental sustainability and the quality of life for those who live and work in the New York metropolitan region. 

Regional Plan Association is a strong supporter of the package of Renewable Rikers bills (Intro 1591, 1592, 1593), collectively known as “the Renewable Rikers Act,” proposed by Council member Constantinides, as well as the need to move as quickly as possible to repurpose Rikers Island and specifically address and redress its legacy of mass incarceration and those who have been directly affected. We are especially excited for Intro 1592 of the Renewable Rikers Act, reflecting the City’s commitment to truly reinventing the Island for uses that benefit the communities who have been most harmed by Rikers Island over the last decades. We also want to recognize the community and environmental organizations which have already begun to envision what a new Rikers Island could be, and how best to make sure that nearby neighborhoods and people impacted by incarceration benefit from its transformation.  

We applaud the steps taken on criminal justice reform thus far by the administration. However, concerning Rikers Island it is past time to translate plans and commitments into concrete action to close it for good. The Renewable Rikers Act will open up a once-in-a-generation opportunity for New York. 

Transforming the island from one for incarceration to one for infrastructure could benefit all of New York City.  It could provide 40% of our contribution to zero waste goals, generate enough renewable energy for 30,000 homes and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 150,000 cars taken off the road. 

There are also specific possibilities and benefits for surrounding communities, many of which have grappled with a severe legacy of environmental racism. Repurposing Rikers Island for green infrastructure could:

  • Eliminate 175 combined sewer overflows & 9 billion gallons of sewer overflow into the inner Long Island Sound, which is ground zero for Combined Sewer Overflow and its detrimental environmental effects. Preventing this will repair an entire ecosystem damaged by the high nitrogen levels from this overflow.

  • Open over 12 miles of inaccessible shoreline. Of the 9 miles of shoreline along the South Bronx and North Queens waterfront in the area, just a few thousand feet is accessible to the public. And that’s in addition to the four miles of inaccessible shoreline on Randalls Island, North and South Brother Islands, and Rikers Island itself.  This would include shutting down another notorious site of incarceration whose time should be past, the Vernon C. Bain correctional center (otherwise known as The Barge).

  • Create major sites for parks, open space and other needed infrastructure. In addition to Rikers Island, much of the land in this area is owned by the City. The four wastewater treatment plants alone could provide over 200 acres of open space. And there is already over 70 acres of vacant open space owned by the public, but largely inaccessible to the public, including North and South Brother Islands and the area surrounding the Queens side of the Rikers Island bridge.

  • Reduce air pollution & significantly improve health. The South Bronx has the worst asthma rates in the City - moving contaminating uses to Rikers Island and reducing truck-to-truck waste transfer stations would provide health improvements for tens of thousands of people.

Closing Rikers Island is a moral imperative, and is also a major opportunity to better the lives of New Yorkers, especially those most impacted by its legacy, through needed and beneficial municipal improvements. Taking concrete steps to end jail usage and start the true transformation of the island would be one of the most impactful legacies this council and this administration could leave for New York City. 

By transferring Rikers Island from the control of the Department of Corrections (DOC) to the control of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) as coordinating agency to direct the Island’s green infrastructure uses, New York City can definitively end the era of holding our fellow New Yorkers on a toxic penal colony, and simultaneously ensure that any future use of Rikers benefits the Black and Brown communities that have been most harmed by mass criminalization, by environmental injustice, and by disinvestment. The Renewable Rikers Act is a key first step towards building a roadmap moving the City into a cleaner and more sustainable future for all of its residents.