ASTORIA – The New York City Council voted on February 11 to pass the Renewable Rikers Act, which will transfer jurisdiction of Rikers Island from the Department of Correction (DOC) to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) and directs the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability (MOS) to conduct a feasibility study on the island’s potential to generate and store renewable energy.
Under the Act, DOC will also be prohibited from operating jails on the island after August 31, 2027. The Renewable Rikers vision emerged from conversations about the post-carceral future of the island, led by survivors of Rikers who advocated for its closure, in partnership with environmental justice leaders.
“The 413 acres of Rikers Island have, for far too long, embodied an unjust and racist criminal justice system,” said Council Member Costa Constantinides. “Far too many New Yorkers found themselves caught in a cycle of over-policing and over-incarceration symbolized by an island named for the family of a slave catcher. Now, however, we will have a golden opportunity to put the principles of the Green New Deal into practice with the Renewable Rikers Act. These bills will offer the city a pathway to building a hub for sustainability and resiliency that can serve as a model to cities around the world. I want to thank all the advocates who have fought so hard to make this day a reality, as well as Speaker Corey Johnson for his steadfast support of this legislation.”
The package passed on Feb. 11 consists of two bills, Intro. 1592 and Intro. 1593. Intro. 1592 establishes a process to manage the transition of Rikers Island away from DOC. Over a six-year period, every building or facility not in active use by DOC will be turned over to DCAS. DOC will also be required to wind down the jails on the island entirely by August 31, 2027. During this time, DCAS will chair a 15-member Rikers Island Advisory Committee that includes MOS, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Sanitation, the Department of Parks and Recreation, as well as environmental justice representatives and members of the public who have been impacted directly by incarceration on the island. This committee will study and make recommendations about potential uses for the island such as renewable energy, expanded wastewater treatment, and organics processing.
Intro. 1593 will require the city to study how building renewable resources paired with battery storage on the island can tie into the city’s long-term energy plan to phase out fossil fuel-fired power plants established as part of the Climate Mobilization Act. According to a preliminary analysis by Sustainable CUNY, 35 acres of solar PV panels installed on Rikers Island would have a capacity of 14.6 megawatts and generate about 17.2 gigawatt hours annually. A mere 12 acres, or 4% of the island’s total area, meanwhile, could potentially hold 1520 megawatts worth of storage, or about one half of the goal set for the entire state by the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.
"Our vote today will help determine the future of Rikers Island, which has the potential to be a sustainability hub that benefits all New Yorkers. As we transfer the land that has been a symbol of mass incarceration for far too long away from the Department of Correction, we mark another milestone in our work to close Rikers Island and imagine a more sustainable future. But we can't allow the land to languish. This study looks at the possibilities for the land, paving the way for a greener, more just, more livable city. I thank Council Member Constantinides for his continued leadership on this issue and all the advocates who have fought so hard to get us to where we are today. I look forward to continuing this fight with all of you in the years to come," said Council Speaker Corey Johnson.
“On behalf of our members who survived the last penal colony in the United States commonly known as Rikers Island, Freedom Agenda would like to thank City Council for the passage of the Renewable Rikers Act. We know the violence, abuse, and toxicity of Rikers. We also know the environmental hazards in our communities.Today is a historic step in the right direction. It took courage, commitment, and work to get us to this point; it is going to take a renewal of courage, commitment, and work moving forward towards our goals,” said Darren Mack, Co-Director, Freedom Agenda.
“I applaud Speaker Corey Johnson, Council Member Costa Constantinides, and the City Council for answering the calls of those who have suffered at Rikers and those who demand to live in a sustainable and healthy New York City. The Renewable Rikers Act is a momentous step towards closing the jails on Rikers forever, advancing racial and criminal justice, and meeting our ambitious environmental goals – all of which are so critically important to the future of this great city,” said Hon. Jonathan Lippman, Chair of the Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice & Incarceration Reform and former New York State Chief Judge.
Julie Tighe, President of the New York League of Conservation Voters, said, "The Renewable Rikers Act will transform Rikers Island into a hub for our green energy economy. Building renewable energy and infrastructure on the island can combat climate change while also reducing the burden of pollution on environmental justice neighborhoods. That's why this policy is one of our priorities and is included in our 2020 City Council Environmental Scorecard. We thank Council Member Constantinides for his bold leadership."
New York City has committed to closing the crumbling facilities on Rikers Island by 2027. In a report published in April 2017, the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform suggested critical environmental infrastructure might be the best use for this 413-acre island once the jail facilities are removed. Constantinides partnered with the CUNY Law School’s Center for Urban Environmental Reform to expand on the Commission’s suggestion. Prof. Rebecca Bratspies, Founding Director of the CUNY Law School Center for Urban Environmental Reform, estimated using 100 acres of the land for solar energy and battery storage could lay the groundwork to justify closing every peaking power plant built in the last two decades.
Advocates have long argued a Renewable Rikers is the best use for the land given both its traumatic history and its own precarious environmental issues. As the island is predominantly landfill from ash and garbage, methane leaks are a persistent problem. Former Rikers employees have attributed health problems to gas seeping from the toxic soil, while collapsing methane pockets have disrupted the foundation of already crumbling jails.
Council Member Costa Constantinides represents the New York City Council's 22nd District, which includes his native Astoria along with Rikers Island, parts of Woodside, East Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights. He serves as the Chair of the City Council's Environmental Protection Committee and sits on the Resiliency, Sanitation, and Technology Committees.
For more information, visit council.nyc.gov/costa.