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The case of 18 year-old Pedro Hernandez has once again brought attention to one of the most notorious jails in the United States – Rikers Island in New York City. Although the mayor, Bill De Blasio, has agreed to close the nation’s second largest jail within ten years, activists say it can’t close soon enough. They say the timeline is too long for inmates like Hernandez, who like thousands of others, can’t afford to pay bail while he awaits trial.
Suspected of a shooting, Hernandez has been in jail for over a year. But he maintains his innocence and at least eight witnesses have made statements that Hernandez did not commit the crime, including the victim of the shooting. A full college scholarship awaits him if and when he gets out.
Inside the jail, rape, murder, beatings, corruption, wrongful imprisonment are the norm, according to activists. Rikers Island has a well-documented history of brutality and has been the subject of numerous lawsuits, pay-outs, and exposes that have made it a potent symbol of all critics say wrong with the US justice system.
New York has resisted long-standing calls to close the jail, but recently, the mayor’s office unveiled a plan to close the complex, which houses approximately 8,000 detainees – almost 90 per cent of which are black and Latino. About 80 per cent of those detained are awaiting trial and have therefore been convicted of no crime.
One proposed plan would decentralise Rikers into smaller "justice hubs" that would be closer to municipal court buildings and spread out through Manhattan's five boroughs. Community leaders say rethinking Rikers Island presents opportunities for urban revitalisation, and what happens there could be a model for the nation.
Critics of the plan say creating miniature versions of Rikers island won’t help, and that there needs to be more of a focus on de-incarceration and rehabilitation.
So, what does the plan look like to close Rikers Island, and how will the city prevent the same issues from plaguing its new jails?
On this episode of The Stream, we'll speak to:
Glenn Martin @glennEmartin
President & founder, JustLeadershipUSA
Raphael Sperry @raphsperry
President, Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility
Anna Mae Duane @annamaeduane
Associate professor, University of Connecticut
Stanley Richards @Stan_Fortune
Member, New York City Board of Correction
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.