A Case for Reparations and Environmental Remediation on Rikers Island

By Raud Rahmanian

On the East River between the New York City boroughs of the Bronx and Queens, sits a 400-acre island known as “Rikers.” The island is connected by a two-lane bridge to Queens and sits across LaGuardia Airport. Home to nine jails with seven thousand inmates, Rikers is a penal colony fraught with the atrocities of mass incarceration and environmental degradation.

According to New York City Council Speaker Cory Johnson “Rikers Island is a symbol of brutality and inhumanity.” Nearly eighty-five percent of those who land at Rikers have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial.[1] Of the entire inmate population, ninety percent are Black and Hispanic who come from low-income neighborhoods in New York. In all, seventy-seven thousand people cycle through Rikers each year.[2]

The place is rife with inmate violence, staff brutality, rape, abuse of adolescents and the mentally ill, and has one of the nation’s highest rates of solitary confinement.[3] This atrocious activity is worsened by the island’s environmental conditions. Rikers is built on a landfill, so the ground underneath the facility is unstable and the decomposing garbage emits poisonous methane gas, which makes the island both vulnerable to natural disasters and its air dangerous to breathe.[4]

In fact, the reputation that Rikers has reaped is a result of the gravest evil sowed on American soil: slavery.[5] In the seventeenth century, long before it became the site of the nation’s second-largest jail, Rikers Island was the home of the Riker family, a Dutch American dynasty with ties to the slave trade.[6] By the nineteenth century, Richard Riker, a family descendant, played an egregious role in the history of slavery in America. As the city recorder who presided over the Court of Special Sessions, New York City’s main criminal court, Riker colluded with anti-abolitionists called the Kidnapping Club who, in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act, would kidnap freed black people and present them before Riker, who would then quickly issue a certificate of removal to send the freed black person back into slavery in the South.[7]

The slave roots of the Riker namesake sprouted into its current usage as a penal colony after the Rikers sold the island to New York City’s Commissioner of Charities and Corrections in 1884.[8] At the time, Rikers Island was only 87.5 acres, so for the following decades, the city used prison labor to expand the island using trash brought in on barges from Manhattan to build out the island to its current size of 400 acres. Once expanded, the first penitentiary on Rikers Island opened in 1932 and as of today, eighty percent of its land mass is landfill.[9] Altogether, the worsening environmental conditions exacerbate the daily human rights violations that are now commonplace on Rikers.

Nothing short of shutting down Rikers Island will begin to reckon with its soiled history and environmental injustice, which is exactly what New York City has announced it will do. Council Member Constantinides, who represents the 22nd District of New York City which includes Rikers, made clear his ambition to restore environmental justice on Rikers Island. On June 10, 2019, Constantinides joined environmental leaders and criminal justice reform advocates to announce the “Renewable Rikers Act,” a three-bill legislative package to transform Rikers Island into a model for green infrastructure. The first bill proposes to transfer control of the island from the NYC Department of Correction to the NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), effectively guaranteeing that this land will never be used for jails again. The second requires the City to determine renewable energy capacity. The third will assess how much wastewater can be diverted to the island, potentially allowing several aging facilities in northern Queens, the South Bronx, and Upper Manhattan to close.[10] 

Furthermore, the Honorable Jonathan Lippman, former Chief Judge of New York and Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals stated the plan to close Rikers “isn’t truly complete without setting the stage for a new reality on the island… It is also time to look ahead to how our city can repurpose this island, which has been a symbol and accelerator of misery for so many and turn it to the use for public good.”[11] The spiritual renewal embodied in this call for a renewed future requires a recompense for past injustices in the form of humanitarian and environmental reparations. To face the challenge, Rikers Island can look to the examples of West Germany making amends for the Holocaust and Iraq evicting from Kuwait after the 1990 – 1991 Gulf War to grasp the moral and pragmatic implications of environmental reparation implementation.

Following the Holocaust and mounting pressure from Israel, West Germany ultimately agreed to pay Israel 3.45 billion deutsche marks, or more than seven billion in today’s dollars for the reparations. Between 1953 and 1961, the reparations money made a significant impact to Israel’s infrastructure, funding almost a third of the total investment in Israel’s electrical system, effectively tripling its capacity, and nearly half the total investment in railways. Furthermore, Israel’s GNP tripled during the twelve years of the agreement. The Bank of Israel attributed fifteen percent of its growth, along with forty-five thousand jobs, to investments made with reparations money. Beyond the monetary and infrastructure benefits realized, the moral impact of reparations had indisputable psychological and political importance, because for the first time in the history of a people that has been persecuted, oppressed, plundered and despoiled for hundreds of years in the countries of Europe, a persecutor and despoiler has been obliged to return part of their spoils and has even undertaken to make collective reparation as partial compensation for material losses.[12]

Rikers Island has more than just moral pressure, but also an environmental threat to address. For this prescription, Rikers can look to the United Nations Compensation Commission (UNCC) and their response to Iraq and the Gulf War. The UNCC established a legal process that catalogued, assessed, and awarded money to pay to clean and repair the damaged soil, water, coastal ecosystems, and other harms resulting from the 1990–1 Gulf War. The UNCC sought eighty-five billion dollars for damage in 168 claims. These payments are with respect to direct environmental damage and the depletion of natural resources as a result of Iraq’s unlawful invasion and occupation of Kuwait, which include losses or expenses resulting from: 

  • Abatement and prevention of environmental damage, including expenses directly relating to fighting oil fires and stemming the flow of oil in coastal and international waters. 
  • Reasonable measures already taken to clean and restore the environment or future measures which can be documented as reasonably necessary to clean and restore the environment. 
  • Reasonable monitoring and assessment of the environmental damage for the purposes of evaluating and abating the harm and restoring the environment. 
  • Reasonable monitoring of public health and performing medical screenings for the purposes of investigation and combating increased health risks as a result of the environmental damage.
  • Depletion of or damage to natural resources.[13]

West Germany and Iraq are precedents that demonstrate the moral, financial, and environmental culpability that countries must bear for their crimes against nature and humanity. Their best practices can inspire creative resolutions to renew Rikers Island and demonstrate how national reparations can work on the city level by leveraging its people and assets.

To provide public access while addressing environmental remediation on a waterfront committed to industrial use, Rikers Island can look to their neighbor down the East River:  Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Brooklyn. Under the purview of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Newtown Creek “gives visitors an up-close view of the waterway and the wastewater treatment plant. It also gives the public a chance to learn about water quality and the cultural and historical significance of the area.”[14] The platform above the eight digester eggs boasts stunning views of the Manhattan skyline while anaerobic digestion below transforms the sewage sludge to “produce approximately 190 to 275 million cubic feet of natural gas for local electricity generation by next year.”[15] Furthermore, guided education programs allow students (pre-K through 12th grade, undergraduate, and graduate-level) as well as teachers and informal educators to discover the journey their drinking water takes to get to their taps, the process of cleaning wastewater before it is released into surrounding waterways, and stewardship opportunities.[16]

Apart from wastewater and waste management, Renewable Rikers can also feature how renewable renewables resources like the sun, wind, and water can produce energy as a source of power for the people.  Looking to Frederick Law Olmstead, the landscape architect of Central Park, human intervention on Rikers Island can be designed and constructed to make the urban landscape more beautiful while providing environmental benefits that are mutually beneficial to nature and society. However, Olmstead’s landscapes can also serve a design lesson to not conceal the biological processes of people and their relationship with the urban fabric.[17] Thus, Renewable Rikers can highlight its natural assets with arts and cultural programming that showcase how renewable power works. Imagine a James Turrell or Dan Flavin site-specific installation that employs the sun as a medium. Or water and wind to memorialize leaders of the civil rights movement. Public-Private partnerships like MoMA Ps1’s Young Architects Program (YAP) and Warm Up combine supporting emerging architectural talent with the opportunity to design and present innovative projects alongside an outdoor music series to elevate innovative and underrepresented voices: emerging and established, local and global, and across genres.[18]

Energy from the island and ticketing for cultural events can provide a source of revenue to support the ongoing operations and maintenance of Renewable Rikers. Yet, to truly reckon the hurt caused by previous use, Renewable Rikers should take the extra moral step by setting aside a percentage of that revenue to a higher-education fund that will pay the tuition and fees of Black New York City students. A leading example is the Texas Tomorrow Fund, a tuition plan guaranteed by the state that allowed parents to prepay for their children’s college educations, effectively locking in then-current rates for tuition and fees.[19] These tuition credits will be eligible to every African American high school student living in New York City who would like to attend any public or private institution in NYC. The act of supporting free higher education for future generations will ensure access to opportunity and narrow the wealth gap, especially among people of color.[20]

Sourced from the power of renewable energy and guided by waterfront equity, Renewable Rikers will heal the environmental and moral wounds afflicted ever since New York City’s role in slavery, because “no African came in freedom to the shores of the New World; consequently, all those found there now are slaves or freedmen. The Negro transmits to his descendants at birth the external mark of his ignominy. The law can abolish servitude, but only God can obliterate its traces.”[21] Ultimately, reparations guided by the vision of waterfront access, environmental protection, and natural power “would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.”[22]

Off the coast of Lower Manhattan, located at a principal gateway to the country, standing high above the water on the East River, the Statue of Liberty has stood as both a lighthouse and symbol to those seeking shore onto the New World.[23] “The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World” represents freedom and democracy, celebrating the Union’s victory in the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery. Although dedicated in 1886, the meaning behind it was not yet a reality for African Americans.[24] Today, that unresolved history meets travelers as they touchdown at LaGuardia Airport, landing over the corroding wasteland of Rikers Island. No doubt, the future kingdom to come will be judged from on high.


Raud Rahmanian is passionate about making cities more equitable, beautiful places that instill a sense of pride in their residents. Raud holds a B.A. in Art History and B.B.A. in Marketing from The University of Texas at Austin. Currently, he is pursuing a Master of Urban Planning from New York University.


  1. Trotta, Daniel. “New York City Council Votes to Close Infamous Rikers Island Jails.” Reuters, 18 Oct. 2019, br.reuters.com/article/us-new-york-rikers-idUSKBN1WW2ZW.
  2. Schwirtz, Michael. “What Is Rikers Island?” The New York Times, 5 Apr. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/04/05/nyregion/rikers-island-prison-new-york.html.
  3. Ridgeway, James, and Jean Casella. “America’s 10 Worst Prisons: Rikers Island.” Mother Jones, 14 May 2013, www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/05/america-10-worst-prisons-rikers-island-new-york-city.
  4. Rakia, Raven. “A Sinking Jail: The Environmental Disaster That Is Rikers Island.” Grist, 14 Feb. 2020, grist.org/justice/a-sinking-jail-the-environmental-disaster-that-is-rikers-island.
  5. Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. 
  6. Di Novi, Will. “Re-Naming Rikers.” Pacific Standard, 14 June 2017, psmag.com/news/re- naming-rikers.
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  11. Spivack, Caroline. “‘Renewable Rikers Act’ Aims to Remake the Island with Green Infrastructure.” Curbed NY, 11 June 2019, ny.curbed.com/2019/6/11/18659909/nyc-rikers-island-solar-field-water-treatment-facility-council-bills.
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  15. Dawson, L. “How Cities Are Turning Food Into Fuel.” POLITICO, 21 Nov. 2019, www.politico.com/news/magazine/2019/11/21/food-waste-fuel-energy-sustainability-070265.
  16. “Visitor Center at Newtown Creek” NYC.Gov, 2010, www1.nyc.gov/site/dep/environment/visitor-center-at-newtown-creek.page.
  17. Spirn, Anne Whiston. “Constructing Nature: The Legacy of Frederick Law Olmstead.” Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, by William Cronon, W.W. Norton & Co., 1996, pp. 91–113.
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  19. Najmabadi, Shannon. “Texas Tomorrow Fund Needs $211 Million to Close Shortfall, Comptroller Says.” The Texas Tribune, 8 Jan. 2019, www.texastribune.org/2019/01/07/texas-tomorrow-fund-needs-211-million-stay-solvent-comptroller-says.
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