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Musings: Kalief Browder, Riker's closing, and the jail system

By Jane Hagl & Lauren AguirreApril 7, 2017

Riker's Island
A view of Riker's Island penitentiary complex in New York City Getty Images

J: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is backing the closure of Riker’s prison, a correctional facility on a 400-yard island that has become synonymous with jail brutality. It might take up to a decade to completely shut down the jail after an independent commissioned study showed it was possible. This is the same prison that 16-year-old Kalief Browder was held for three years without a trial before he committed suicide at 22-years-old. The move to shut down Riker's seemed impossible for NYC but what does reform mean for the rest American prison system?

L: An interesting discussion point that is coming out of this is: can we make our jails safer or do we have to just shut them down? Additionally, there are implications for the bail system. The majority of people in jail in New York City are actually just waiting their day in court. They couldn't afford to put up bail so they're basically forced to live in prison when they haven’t even been convicted of anything yet.

J: Well the Riker's jail is going to be shut down and smaller jails in the boroughs will be added. Which would then ease the problem of backlog. But there’s also the problem of holding first-time minors alongside multiple offenders. If the point of prison is to rehabilitate, putting an untried 16-year-old in the same place an accused murderer or gang member is not correcting anything. But then there’s the question: is jail supposed to be for or rehabilitation more for protecting society?

L: I personally have viewed the idea of punishment as something you experience to help you see the error of your ways and become a better person. There are other factors at play in this too, but the fact that so many people released from incarceration end up becoming repeat offenders shows that jail isn’t really a good deterrent or isn't helping people rehabilitate as well as we might like.


...can we make our jails safer or do we have to just shut them down?

J: Cases differ though. A serial killer’s mentality is probably different than that of a drug dealer. You can’t correct multiple types of crimes with a singular punishment. And the justice system doesn’t always try cases justly. What happens to the Kalief Browders? It’s not the first case that an innocent person wasted life in jail and then had to suffer the consequences. Jail and prison aren't fun places. And there are numerous stories of inmate abuse by wardens and guards. Meanwhile, there is Ethan Couch who killed several people, got off on “affluenza” defense, broke his probation and is still under lax watch.

L: We could probably significantly reduce the jail population by reforming the bail pay system. Bail exists to ensure that the accused shows up on their court date. Instead of sitting in jail, you can pay bail and get the amount back after your trial. But unfortunately, too many people can’t afford to pay bail and either end up in jail (even if they were falsely accused) or borrowing the money from a private bail bond company. The kicker is a lot of the people who can’t pay bail would still show up in court of they were allowed to return to their lives.

J: I wonder how much of it is just an archaic system that hasn’t adapted. Crime has fallen so you would think it would be less of a hassle. But higher profile cases tend to move through the system much faster. You can’t punish people for not having enough money by taking away the right to a speedy trial. If Bowder lived, he could have argued for damages based on the fact he didn’t have a speedy trial.

L: There's a lot of the system that really needs to change. Hopefully closing Riker’s is a step in the right direction.​​

J: Then, there is the whole issue of privatization of jails and prisons but I think that’s another musing.