Renewable Rikers


“La Guardia, Riker’s Island, fronm over the Bronx” by wbaiv is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Catherine Auerbach

Rikers Island is notorious for being one of the largest, most violent, and most neglected jails in America. Its use of solitary confinement, as well as its lack of resources and high population of inmates, has caused the mental health of many inmates to plummet. Numerous cases of serious fights and injuries between inmates and staff also result from these issues. Activists and lobbying groups have pushed for Rikers to be closed, and NYC lawmakers voted to completely empty out the jail by 2026. 


With the impending closure of Rikers comes the question, what will replace it? How will we use this 400 acre plot of land for a better purpose than incarceration? 


New York City Councilmember Costa Constantinides, district 22’s councilmember, says the answer to this question is to use the island to create renewable and environmentally friendly infrastructure. I am currently working with teens at my synagogue, Central Synagogue, and the Close Rikers Coalition to help lobby for the Renewable Rikers Act, proposed by CM Constantinides. 


The Renewable Rikers Act is a series of three bills (#1591, #1592, and #1593). The bills propose a plan for new green infrastructure and facilities to help reduce NYC’s waste and carbon footprint. With my team at Central Synagogue and the Close Rikers Coalition, we have spoken with multiple city council members to learn more about these bills and Constantinides’ plan for sustainability. 


Each bill has a distinct and essential purpose in the overall goal of transforming the island. Bill #1591 would require the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to conduct a study examining the feasibility of constructing a new wastewater treatment facility on Rikers Island. To relocate wastewater treatment plants onto Rikers Island would lift an extensive burden from communities who have dealt with them for decades. Passing Bill #1591 would be the first step in examining this crucial possibility. 


The second bill in the Renewable Rikers Act, #1592, would require jurisdiction over Rikers Island to be transferred to the DEP for “renewable energy generation or other environmental purposes” when the population of detainees at the jails falls below 5,000. Currently, jurisdiction over Rikers belongs to the Department of Corrections. Though lawmakers have voted to close Rikers by 2026, transferring control of the island to the DEP is a more set-in-stone step towards sustainability. It also makes it more likely that lawmakers won’t go back on their vote and change their minds if Rikers has already been handed over to the DEP. 


Finally, bill #1593 would direct the Mayor’s office to study the feasibility of different types of renewable energy sources to see if they’re practical on Rikers Island. Getting this bill passed would be similar to bill #1591 in the way that it would allow real progress and lay visible groundwork for this project. 


None of these bills have been passed yet; the majority of them don’t even yet have enough support by city council members to be brought to a vote. But we hope that will change soon. My work with the Close Rikers Coalition and Renewable Rikers team hopes to lobby and rally council members’ support for transforming a truly ugly piece of New York’s history into something sustainable, environmentally friendly, and worthwhile for the future.