NYLPI Celebrates as City Council Passes the Renewable Rikers Act

February 12, 2021

Environmental Justice, News, Renewable Rikers

Image: thank you to City Council for Renewable Riker's bills

Yesterday morning, more than 75 advocates, survivors of Rikers, community members and leaders joined the Speaker of the City Council, Council Member Constantinides, NYLPI Senior Supervising Counsel Melissa Iachán, and other partners in the Renewable Rikers Coalition to commemorate this historic day and the passage of transcendent legislation, with the goal of transforming an Island with a legacy of discrimination, torture, and injustice into land that represents hope, sustainability, and justice by investing in sustainable infrastructure and creating good green jobs. The Renewable Rikers vision was conceived of by directly impacted individuals and their community members together with environmental justice advocates in visioning how reparative justice could be employed to begin to heal from the harms of mass incarceration and pollution on low income communities and communities of color. NYLPI has led the work of the coalition alongside key partners Freedom Agenda–whose membership is comprised of people and communities directly impacted by incarceration and legal justice systems, the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, the Independent Commission for NYC Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In a recent press release from Council Member Costa Constantinides’ office, Iachán was quoted saying the below:

“Today we turn the page in the history of New York City to a new chapter, with restorative justice, sustainability, and a hopeful future as the storyline. Renewable Rikers is the result of years of conversations and movement-building led by survivors of Rikers and their neighbors in environmental justice communities, who together identified the fact that our same communities are overpoliced and over-polluted. The Renewable Rikers vision, which begins to be codified with today’s votes in the Council, ensures that the harms inflicted on our neighbors and fellow citizens who have returned home from incarceration only to breathe polluted air stay firmly in the past, and that these harms begin to be repaired today, by investing in green and renewable infrastructure on the 413 acres of Rikers Island, and closing much of the polluting infrastructure in our communities of color. Today is a day to be celebrated, but our work is not over. Today the City made a promise to do better, and we intend to continue our work to ensure that that promise is kept,” said Melissa Iachán, Senior Supervising Counsel, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.

Read the full press release below.

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 

The Council of the City of New York

Council Member Costa Constantinides, District 22

February 11, 2021

Contact: Nick Widzowski 

347-659-8482

 

New York City Council Passes the Renewable Rikers Act

Groundbreaking Legislation Ensures that Rikers Island will be 

Used for Sustainability and Resiliency Purposes

Astoria, NY – The New York City Council voted today 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 today 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 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.

“This legislation opens the door to transforming the notorious Rikers Island jail complex into a model of sustainability and green energy that could benefit New York City and its residents for decades to come,” said Eric A. Goldstein, New York City Environment Director at Natural Resources Defense Council. “The Renewable Rikers legislation recognizes that social justice and environmental protection go hand in hand, and that to achieve a just future, both objectives must be advanced. We are grateful to Councilmember Costa Constantinides, Speaker Corey Johnson and the bills’ many co-sponsors for championing this landmark legislation.”

“Today we turn the page in the history of New York City to a new chapter, with restorative justice, sustainability, and a hopeful future as the storyline. Renewable Rikers is the result of years of conversations and movement-building led by survivors of Rikers and their neighbors in environmental justice communities, who together identified the fact that our same communities are overpoliced and over-polluted. The Renewable Rikers vision, which begins to be codified with today’s votes in the Council, ensures that the harms inflicted on our neighbors and fellow citizens who have returned home from incarceration only to breathe polluted air stay firmly in the past, and that these harms begin to be repaired today, by investing in green and renewable infrastructure on the 413 acres of Rikers Island, and closing much of the polluting infrastructure in our communities of color. Today is a day to be celebrated, but our work is not over. Today the City made a promise to do better, and we intend to continue our work to ensure that that promise is kept,” said Melissa Iachán, Senior Supervising Counsel, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.

“Hunts Point and the South Bronx community have for too long been negatively impacted by the criminal justice system and environmental injustices. We want to see community-led solutions and transformative changes to our dirty energy systems. The vision for a Renewable Rikers is a major step in establishing renewable energy and sustainable infrastructure that will allow for more equitable, resilient, and community-driven development. Renewable Rikers creates a path to move our communities towards a Just Transition that enables sustainability and resiliency,” said Dariella Rodriguez, Director of Community Development, THE POINT CDC.

 

“As we collectively work toward achieving the goal of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, we must take this opportunity to build a renewable, regenerative, and restorative Riker’s Island. Renewable Rikers will create a hub of large-scale renewable energy and battery storage technology that can move us toward shutting down fossil fuel peaker power plants that have been polluting environmental justice communities for decades. Renewable Rikers will be a model for a Just Transition in New York City,” said Annel Hernandez, Associate Director, New York City Environmental Justice Alliance.

 

“As a justice-impacted organization, Exodus Transitional Community thanks the City Council for passing the Renewable Rikers Act. By creating renewable energy sources on land where so many people have suffered, we – the people that have been most harmed by the violence and pollution that plague Rikers Island – are giving back and leading with love. We want to heal our communities and environmental justice is instrumental in doing so. Renewable Rikers will help all New Yorkers breathe cleaner air. It will allow us to close the Peaker Plants and free up land in neighborhoods across the City that have been most impacted by mass incarceration, so those communities can decide how they want to use it. Thank you City Council for stepping up and making the right decision. A decision that is not only morally-responsible but fiscally sound for the future of New York City,” said Kandra Clark, VP of Policy & Strategy, Exodus Transitional Community.

 

“The Renewable Rikers bills will advance environmental justice and sustainability for New Yorkers, while ensuring that Rikers Island is never used to incarcerate human beings. People do not belong on Rikers, an island built on toxic waste where disproportionate numbers of low-income Black and Brown people are held as they await trial. New York City has a unique opportunity to implement a forward-thinking vision that will make us a global model for green energy and criminal justice,” said Reverend Wendy Calderón-Payne, Executive Director of Urban Youth Alliance/BronxConnect.

 

“Research has shown that low-income communities and communities of color not only endure a disproportionate level of the health impacts of climate change as well as pollution in general, but they also face disproportionate rates of incarceration,” said Sonal Jessel, Director of Policy at WE ACT for Environmental Justice. “Building a solar farm on Rikers Island would reduce pollution in these communities, help the city achieve its emissions reduction goals to address climate change, and create a pathway to good, green jobs for those adversely impacted by brutal facilities such as Rikers. The transformation can serve as a model for both climate justice and reparative justice.”

“350Brooklyn is proud to be a part of this broad-based coalition in its fight to end the harms of Rikers Island, and in seeking reparative justice. The Renewable Rikers Act presents an era-defining opportunity for us to reimagine and rebuild a greener future for our city, and we hope that citizens of New York City will take inspiration from the passage of these bills to actively participate with us in making this great vision a reality,” said Georgi Page, a lead organizer for 350Brooklyn’s City Action Committee.

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.”

“The passage of the Renewable Rikers Act today is a momentous step forward for New York City that moves us toward our city’s climate goals, addresses historical racial injustices, and set us on the path to a Just Transition.” said Maritza Silva-Farrell, Executive Director of ALIGN. ” As a key piece of the Climate Works for All’s report, this initiative will help move us towards the creation of 100,000 good union jobs, and towards an Equitable Recovery.”

“It’s always been my belief that the island should be given back to nature to serve as a resource. It’s stolen land from indigenous people, so creating a renewable resource doesn’t compensate for taking the land and using it for evil, but it does begin to right those wrongs and help the environment,” said Eileen Maher, Community Leader at VOCAL-NY.

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.

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