After New York City officials voted to permanently close the infamous Rikers Island jail complex, the question came up of what the island should be used for. Now, a group of researchers has presented a plan to remake the island as a “green energy hub.” The proposal would include new green energy and waste treatment facilities, plus a learning center to train formerly incarcerated people in green jobs. If realized, it could become a symbolic inspiration to the nationwide movement to shut down prisons and jails.
“The Renewable Rikers vision was born out of conversations among directly impacted community members—survivors of Rikers, their family members, and neighbors who identified the disproportionate exposure to pollution in their neighborhoods as yet another form of institutional racism and violence they had to survive,” Melissa Iachan of the Renewable Rikers Coalition said in a November 2 press release.
“We look forward to utilizing this informative and intelligent report to continue our efforts to ensure that our City government focus on decarceration, decarbonization, and moving towards a fair, just and greener New York City.”
In October 2019, New York City Council approved a plan to close the Rikers Island jails by 2026 (however, against activists’ wishes, it planned to construct four new jails located in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx). Later, in February 2021, it voted on a bill to transfer ownership of the island’s land and buildings from the Department of Correction (DOC) to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS). It also asked for a study to see if the island could host renewable energy facilities. The final deadline to end jail operations is August 31, 2027.
“It’s not necessarily competing visions being the obstacle, it’s a matter of logistics and money. It’s an extremely big and complicated project.”
“It’s pretty much a consensus plan at this point—once we shut down Rikers, this is the thing to do with it,” Moses Gates told Filter. Gates is the vice president of housing and neighborhood planning for the Regional Plan Association (RPA), which created the plan along with the Rhode Island School of Design. “It’s not necessarily competing visions being the obstacle, it’s a matter of logistics and money being the obstacle,” he said. “It’s an extremely big and complicated project.”
The plan has several pieces. It would include a research and training institute to help formerly incarcerated people learn about green energy infrastructure. A solar power and energy storage facility would generate 275 megawatts of power and store 1,500 megawatts, meaning the city could close some nearby power plants. A wastewater treatment plant would replace four nearby and older plants, freeing up 182 acres of land for community use. Finally, a recycling and composting hub would process over 365,000 tons of organic waste per year—over a third of the city’s total.
“This is all infrastructure we have to build anyway,” Gates said. “This is to replace our aging infrastructure with new infrastructure, number one. Number two, we have certain emissions and environmental goals we have to meet. You can think of it as an infrastructure replacement or maintenance project.”
Asked by Filter, Gates could not estimate how much it would cost to build the site, or what it would save the city in future expenses. But he predicted that the federal government would most likely cover a significant portion of the construction costs. (President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, for example, is providing $425 million in funding to applicants to develop and implement clean energy programs.)
A new wastewater treatment plant on Rikers would retire four nearby plants on Wards Island, Bowery Bay, Tallman Island and Hunts Point. These are some of the city’s oldest plants. They’re working beyond their original capacity, and can’t be upgraded. The four plants currently treat 40 percent of the city’s daily wastewater—but after heavy rains, they contribute 55 percent of its sewer overflows. Put bluntly, the plants meant to make water clean are literally spewing shit into it. Consolidating these in a new facility on Rikers Island would potentially allow people in surrounding communities to enjoy more green space and cleaner waterways.
A new solar installation would meanwhile retire five nearby “peaker” power plants. These gas-fired facilities supply electricity during times of heavier usage, like the coldest winter or hottest summer days. They emit toxic pollutants like nitrogen oxide—giving one corner of northern Astoria with three such plants the nickname “Asthma alley.” In addition, what would be the world’s largest battery farm would store energy for backup use during citywide outages.
While remaking the island, the new facilities would also mark its history of brutality with a visitor center.
While over a third of the city’s waste can be composted, only 1.3 percent of it actually is. The bulk of New York’s organic waste ends up in landfills or incinerators, and is transported by trucks through local neighborhoods, polluting the air further. Because the city doesn’t have enough capacity for its own waste, it is transported to states as far away as Ohio and South Carolina.
In contrast, a new organic waste plant on Rikers would take in waste locally from three nearby transfer stations located on waterways. It would be transported by barge, eliminating trucks. Over time, Rikers would process 35 percent of the city’s organic waste—and create soils and fertilizer to be returned to city parks, streets and gardens.
While remaking the island, the new facilities would also mark its history of brutality with a visitor center at the base of the bridge connecting Rikers to Queens.
Decarceration activists around the country could one day be able to point to Rikers as an example of how jails and the land they occupy can be repurposed to benefit, rather than harm, their communities. But whatever happens, transitioning Rikers Island will be a long process.
The legislation approved by city lawmakers in 2021 requires that an advisory committee be set up—including representatives from different city agencies, environmental activists and formerly incarcerated people—to decide the future of the island. Its feasibility study was due on June 30, 2022 and must be updated every four years.
“Depending on what kind of infrastructure needs to built, you’re talking of a timeline that will be measured in decades, not years,” Gates said. “To effect a total transformation of the island, you’re looking at a relatively long timeframe, between 10-20 years.”
Artist’s rendering of a future Rikers Island facility from RPA’s report.