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A Renewable Future for Formerly Incarcerated New Yorkers

satellite image of rikers island
Image: USGS

There are 42 islands scattered among the five boroughs of New York City. Nestled near an uninhabited wildlife sanctuary and an abandoned smallpox hospital, New York’s most notorious island could become its most significant source of renewable energy.

Often referred to as the world’s largest penal colony, Rikers Island was purchased by the city in 1884 from a family of enslavers as part of the charter that established the Department of Correction. The island contains 10 jails with the capacity to incarcerate 14,700 people. Of those currently incarcerated, roughly 90% are Black or Latino and 90% are still awaiting trial, often unable to afford bail.

While awaiting trial for months or sometimes years, many are subjected to high levels of physical and psychological abuse. Between 2016 and 2019, the number of incidents where correction officers used force against incarcerated people more than doubled, leading the Department of Justice to declare a “pervasive and deep-seated culture of violence.” Eighteen people have died on Rikers Island since the beginning of 2022, many of whom have died by suicide.

New York has an unprecedented opportunity to shift the legacy of Rikers Island from one of brutality to one of restoration. As the result of an unwavering grassroots movement, the jail complex on Rikers Island is scheduled to close in August 2027. What, then, will become of the vacant island?

Some have argued that the facilities should be converted into public housing units. The facilities, however, were built atop a landfill that is leaking methane gas, making the island unfit for housing — despite housing tens of thousands of incarcerated people for nearly 100 years. Others have argued that Rikers Island can be converted into a solar farm — an epicenter of renewable energy to provide clean power for New York City.

prison buildings and barb wire fences
Jail complex on Rikers Island. Photo: Sfoskett

Turning Rikers Island into a solar power facility would benefit low-income communities across the city by replacing gas-fired peaker plants. These plants were designed to provide extra power to the city when energy is in high demand, but they produce twice as many carbon emissions as standard power plants, and they emit sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide.

Noxious air pollution from peaker plants in the South Bronx contributes to high rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses in the country’s poorest congressional district. Similar plants were constructed in Long Island City, to the east of Rikers Island, just blocks away from the country’s largest public housing complex.

By converting Rikers Island into a solar array, merely 100 of the island’s 413 acres would produce enough clean power to phase out all peaker plants in New York City. This would reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly while restoring clean air to the low-income communities nearby.

In February 2021, the New York City Council voted to pass the Renewable Rikers Act, legislation which transfers jurisdiction of the island from the Department of Correction to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. The City Council also passed a series of bills to initiate studies on the island’s feasibility for renewable energy, battery storage, composting, and wastewater treatment.

This is a significant step toward a healthier future, but certain considerations must be taken into account to ensure the transition to solar energy on Rikers Island is just and equitable.

First, the city should train and employ formerly incarcerated people as solar mechanics and technicians. People with a criminal record have difficulty finding employment, and a municipal program could create thousands of jobs and develop the skills necessary for the island’s energy future. The city is already pursuing a similar model with the sale of cannabis, reserving retail licenses for people with drug convictions as a form of economic reparations.

New York City’s political leadership will need to follow in the footsteps of organizations like Grid Alternatives, a solar power nonprofit in California, which provides training to formerly incarcerated people joining the renewable energy workforce. Such an opportunity can reduce recidivism while combating the stigma that serves as an existing barrier to employment.

Second, the city will need to remediate the toxic landfill on the island, which would support the development of a large-scale compost facility and a wastewater treatment system. The new wastewater treatment facility would replace four aging facilities, ensuring that New York’s low-income waterfront communities become equipped with climate-resilient utilities and state-of-the-art amenities.

Third, the city should continue to decarcerate — reduce its jail and prison population — and address the root causes of crime by making significant investments in education, housing, and healthcare to curtail homelessness, poverty, and unemployment. It currently costs the city $556,539 to detain one person for a year at Rikers Island. By reappropriating funds from the Department of Correction’s $860 million budget, and divesting funding from the New York Police Department’s $11 billion budget for populating jails, the city can make indispensable investments in renewable infrastructure and restorative social services.

As the country with the highest per-capita incarceration rate and a prison population of roughly two million, the United States can follow the lead of New York City and take strides in decarceration while investing in our renewable energy future. The U.S. incarceration rate dropped by 14% between 2019 and 2020, and New York’s jail population has fallen by 47% since 2015, but there is still much work to be done.

If legislators are serious about tackling the most existential crisis on Earth, they must ensure justice and dignity for all, affirming that no person is disposable. And that begins with transforming Rikers Island from a destructive penal colony into a microcosm for a restorative future.

Joshua Nodiff is a climate justice writer and graduate student in the Climate and Society program at the Columbia Climate School.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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