Lessons from Rikers Island

Darren Walker discusses how jails like Rikers Island perpetuate inequality and injustice and embody the broken criminal justice system in America.

Published in The Atlantic | May 9, 2017
Lessons from Rikers Island | By Darren Walker

About 18 months ago, there seemed to be a growing national consensus about the imperative of criminal-justice reform. There was rare bipartisan agreement on the scale and scope of the challenges America’s incarceration crisis presents. While it seems that federal momentum for reform has slowed—if not reversed, as of late—it’s still possible to take meaningful steps toward justice locally.

Several weeks ago, the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform—of which I was a member—recommended the closure of Rikers Island, the 8,000-person jail in the East River of New York. While the decision made New York City headlines, the issue is much larger. Rikers Island is actually a microcosm of everything wrong with America’s criminal-justice system, and may also offer a model for how it can be righted.

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