Turn Rikers Island Into a Solar Farm
by Kate Aronoff  /  June 19, 2020

“The past and present of Rikers Island can tell you a lot about the United States. Richard Riker—the owner of the island, which had been in his slave-owning Dutch-German family since the 1660s—was an integral part of a kidnapping ring that sold black people in the North back to slavery in the South under the Fugitive Slave Act.

As New York City’s City Recorder, Riker would issue certificates of removal for those captured to be deported without a whisper of due process. The Riker family sold the land today known as Rikers Island in 1884, after which point it began its long transition into something much closer to its current usage: a penal colony.

Trash was brought in on barges from Manhattan to build out the island to accommodate a massive jail complex, which took on its first inmates in 1932. Today, 80 percent of its land mass is landfill. Pockets of methane created by decomposing garbage routinely burst, shaking the island and endangering anyone around. That’s mainly inmates—90 percent of whom are people of color—but guards and prisoners alike have complained about the toll any prolonged time spent on the island can take on your health.

Heat in the summer can be unbearable, which has lent to its ominous nickname: “The Oven.” In a detailed account of the island’s environmental justice horror show, reporter Raven Rakia noted at Grist that, as temperatures rise, six of the island’s 10 facilities lack air conditioning. Like other prisons, Rikers has also been a hot spot for Covid-19.

After decades of lawsuits and controversy and a concerted campaign by former inmates and activists, the New York City Council finally voted to close down Rikers Island’s jail facilities within a decade last fall. In addition to an ongoing debate about whether the city will build replacement facilities or instead commit itself to drastically reducing the number of people it incarcerates, there’s the question of what to do with the island itself. If Rikers Island has come to symbolize the cruelty of the carceral system, what’s built in its wake could help signal a way forward.

As the movement to close Rikers gained momentum, a cross section of environmental and criminal justice groups began meeting to discuss plans for what might come next. “Rather than get into a battle with real estate titans of New York City, we wanted to get out ahead of that and stake our claim for Rikers to no longer be the city’s penal colony but a resource of clean energy, jobs, and redistributive justice,” Cecil Corbin-Mark, the deputy director and director of policy initiatives at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, told me.

City Councilor Costa Constantinides’s Queens district includes Rikers and features some of the city’s worst air quality and highest rates of Covid-19 deaths. Working with WE ACT and the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, among others, he has introduced a series of three bills known collectively as a plan for a Renewable Rikers.

The first bill would transfer the deed for the island away from the Department of Corrections to another to-be-determined agency. The second and third bills would begin official studies from the city to determine [the cost of a solar farm,] the island’s capacity for renewable energy and new wastewater treatment infrastructure, to replace several outdated facilities throughout Queens.

An initial study by the CUNY Center for Urban and Environmental Reform, in 2019, found siting solar on just one-quarter of the island would generate enough power for the city to close down all of the massively polluting gas-fired secondary, or “peaker,” plants established decades ago, with scant public input, in the Five Boroughs’ black and brown communities, whose residents have been disproportionately likely to end up on Rikers at some point in their lives.

For the last five years, WE ACT—which developed and has been a major proponent of the Renewable Rikers plan—has operated the Solar Uptown Now, or SUN, initiative in partnership with the nonprofit Solar One, training Northern Manhattan residents for jobs working in renewable energy. Out of that has sprung the cooperative Solar Uptown Now Services, which WE ACT hopes can bid on contracts for renewable energy development on Rikers.

“We would often have to tell people, we don’t care about your police record. We only care about the record that you develop in this program,” Corbin-Mark said. Federal grants for similar training programs, he explained, prohibit them from accepting formerly incarcerated people…”

“…creating major barriers in communities where encounters with police are commonplace and, in many cases, brutal. And those with records who do receive training in solar installation can face further barriers to getting jobs once they’re credentialed. As Corbin-Mark put it, “How could policing not impact the work that we do?”

Renewable Rikers is not the only proposal on the table but is the most fleshed out, so far. There’s been talk of making Rikers the home for another runway for LaGuardia Airport, or even real estate development. Because its foundations are so toxic, doing much of anything on Rikers is likely to require extensive land remediation.

With many details still to be worked out, Renewable Rikers advocates are keen to see those plans move forward on a democratic footing. “We want as many people as possible at the table,” Constantinides told me. “The most important thing is to have communities that have been overpolluted and overpoliced be the primary voices at that table. Those need to be the voices that we’re hearing the loudest.”

Environmental and climate justice groups have long pushed for this sort of approach, which they hope will inform emissions reductions plans at all levels of government. WE ACT’s expansive Northern Manhattan Climate Action Plan, for example, was drafted through a series of public workshops involving hundreds of community members, meetings with city agencies, and input from partner organizations from around the city and across the U.S.

“Our community has a capacity to think holistically, and they do that because it’s necessary for their survival,” Corbin-Mark told me. “They cannot escape the very wicked problems that plague their lives. They also can’t escape the original pandemic, which is racism in this country. And so by necessity when you give to our communities the tools to envision and imagine what the future should look like, […] they come up with visions that are more expansive and resilient, because they are trying to figure out by necessity how to solve the many challenges that this society has laid at their doorstep.”

Following controversies over New York City power provider ConEdison and a series of blackouts last summer, Constantinides has also championed bringing the utility under public ownership. Despite its black and brown residents having some of the highest energy burdens in the country and the supposed reliability provided by polluting peaker plants, Queens has lost power provided by ConEd a number of times in the last year—including when temperatures soared to nearly 100 degrees.

Outrage over citywide outages and persistent mismanagement has caused even Mayor Bill De Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo to put a public takeover of ConEd on the table. Constantinides called Renewable Rikers the “quintessential public power project,” adding that the investor-owned utility “shouldn’t own this or be dictating how this power would work.” Though details of any renewable development on the island are pending further study, there’s some possibility that energy generated there could fall under the purview of the already-public New York Power Authority.

Like many initiatives, the legislative push for Renewable Rikers has stalled amidst Covid-19. The three bills appeared to have some support before the pandemic fully set in. Speaker Corey Johnson has reportedly been enthusiastic and was set to include the proposal in his canceled State of the City address. Constantinides’s office hopes that next steps can be taken as soon as government restrictions allow; it’s also not unrelated to the conversations that have occupied much of the city government’s time in recent weeks.

As city officials debate not whether but by how much to defund the NYPD, Renewable Rikers can offer a tangible example of what organizers in the movement to close Rikers have long advocated: to complement divestment from police with investment in safer and healthier communities. The result could have Richard Riker turning in his grave.”


“…Most outrageous were the activities of Richard Riker, the city recorder, who presided over the Court of Special Sessions, New York City’s main criminal court. An attorney and important figure in the local Democratic party, Riker held the office, with brief interruptions, from 1815 until 1838. With a group of accomplices including city constable Tobias Boudinot and the “pimp for slaveholders” Daniel D. Nash, Riker played a pivotal role in what abolitionists called the Kidnapping Club. In accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act, members of the club would bring a black person before Riker, who would quickly issue a certificate of removal before the accused had a chance to bring witnesses to testify that he was actually free. Boudinot boasted that he could “arrest and send any black to the South…”

Maybe New York’s most infamous jail shouldn’t bear the name of a 19th-century judge who sent free African Americans back into slavery
by / July 23, 2015

“As much as the slave-trade market played a role in building the city of Charleston, South Carolina, and many other cities across the South, Northern cities were no less complicit in the industry of purchased lives. New York City, in fact, held more slaves in the 18th century than any other city except for Charleston. It’s no surprise then that many of the buildings, streets, banks, and plenty of other New York City landmarks carry the names of slaveowners or slavery supporters.

Count Rikers Island city jail among that batch. The island the jail sits on is named for Abraham Riker (or Abraham Rycken), a Dutch immigrant who acquired the land in the early 17th century, and whose family owned it until selling it to the city in 1884. Abraham’s descendant Richard Riker was infamous in the 1800s for abusing the Fugitive Slave Act to send (or sell) African Americans in New York to slaveowners in the South, according to historians.

It’s for this reason that Harlem Historical Society Director Jacob Morris is heading up a petition to rename the Rikers Island jail facilities and distance it from Richard Riker’s racism. Morris told DNAinfo that the jail is “the spider at the center of the web” of New York’s role in the slave trade, and that, “There’s nothing … socially redeeming about Richard Riker.” Depending on what version of history you go by, Riker was either a racially progressive gentleman, or a real bastard.

According to Eric Foner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Columbia University history professor who wrote Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, out this year, Riker was the latterFrom the 1810s to the 1830s, when the abolitionist movement was gathering steam, particularly with its role in the Underground Railroad, Foner writes that Riker was moving the city in the opposite direction. Riker used his wealth and power as a presiding judge over New York City’s primary criminal court to see to it that African Americans were swiftly deemed “fugitive” runaway slaves, without granting them due process to prove they were actually free.

The 19th-century historian Benson John Lossing offers another version of Riker. He writes in his 1884 book, History of New York City, that Riker was an “upright and sagacious judge at the head of a court, and an estimable citizen.” Later in the book, Lossing details an episode where Riker intervened as a group of “colored people” fled from an angry white mob. According to Lossing, Riker stopped the assailants and then “led the colored people in safety to the City Hall, where they were kept in security until morning.” Still, Foner’s book recounts a number of events where Riker provided the opposite of asylum for black New Yorkers who appeared before his bench.

In one of those cases, writes Foner: “[A] North Carolina slaveowner, Dr. Rufus Haywood of Raleigh, staged a midnight raid on the home of one Lockley. Despite protests that he was a free man, Lockley, his wife, and their twelve-year-old daughter were imprisoned as fugitives, and after a series of hearings before Recorder Richard Riker, they were taken south by Haywood.” Foner also pulls evidence from Elizur Wright Jr.’s early 19th-century newsletter “Chronicles of Kidnapping,” which “told the stories of black persons who had been shipped south by city officials without a hearing and of accused fugitives who had spent months in prison before their cases were adjudicated.”

That last part sounds a lot like what happened just recently with Kalief Browder, the African-American teenager who spent more than 1,000 days in Rikers Island awaiting a trial that never came after he was accused of robbery. He was released in 2013, but committed suicide this past June after leaving the Rikers Island compound mentally and emotionally scarred from his ordeal.

Rikers Island has been flagged multiple times for the abuse inmates have suffered at what today is considered one of the largest—and what Mother Jones has identified as one of the cruelest—jails in the nation. Roughly 95 percent of Rikers inmates are black or Latino, by some estimates. It may not close any time soon, but Morris hopes the jail could at least become detached from the legacy of a man who was, by Foner’s account, extremely complicit in a system that was equally invested in turning African Americans into fugitives and prisoners.”