By Christopher White
NEW YORK – New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan joined with religious leaders throughout the city on Thursday to call for the closing of Rikers Island, saying that one of the nation’s most notorious prisons “has got to go.”
At a press conference outside of the New York Supreme Court, the cardinal said the prison complex, one of the largest in the nation, goes against the values of the gospel and American values of “fairness, hope, and justice.”
“God has told us Jews, Christians, members of Islam to bring compassion, mercy, and justice to those who are incarcerated,” he said.
In a nod to President Ronald Reagan’s Berlin Wall Speech, Dolan said “in the name of God, let’s tear down this place.”
Dolan was joined by Brooklyn’s Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, auxiliary Bishop John O’Hara, executive director of Catholic Charities Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, Rev. A. R. Bernard of the Christian Cultural Center, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik of the New York Board of Rabbis, and other members of the Commission of Religious Leaders (CORL), which serves as an advocacy body on issues related to poverty, racism, homelessness, and “a breakdown of moral values, family structure and other social institutions.”
In a collective statement, CORL said the need to close Rikers was a “moral imperative.”
“The life and dignity of the human person, made in the image and likeness of God, is a principle of our faiths, and must be applied to all. The conditions found in Rikers Island robs the imprisoned of their dignity, denies them justice, and deprives them of mercy,” they said.
Rikers Island – a four hundred-acre island in the East River amidst Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx – has repeatedly come under scrutiny in recent years for overcrowding and its brutal treatment of inmates.
The prison currently houses just under 10,000 inmates and according to a 2013 report in Mother Jones, has one of the highest rates of solitary confinement in the nation. A report that same year by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene documented 129 cases where beatings of inmates led to “severe injuries.”
In 2017, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced that he intended to close the prison within the next ten years, opening up a number of regional jails in New York’s boroughs to house its current inmates, an undertaking expected to cost over ten billion dollars.
While admitting that as religious leaders, they are not “pros in the intricate details,” Dolan said that “we are experts in the protection of human dignity and the common good of the community that we love and cherish.”
In addition to visiting inmates, Dolan said that it’s often religious leaders who are on the front lines in supporting families of prisoners and helping to support them once they are released after serving jail time.
He also said the current costs of Rikers was another practical reason to support the prison’s closing, arguing that it’s “contrary to common sense to spend billions of dollars on a complex that doesn’t work and happens to worsen things.”
Earlier this month, Pope Francis spoke out about the need to offer prisoners the “right to hope,” and called for an end to the practice of life without parole.
In an audience with guards, chaplains, and volunteers from the Italian Ministry of Justice, he said “If you close hope in a cell, there is no future for society.”
He then addressed inmates directly, saying “Never let yourselves be imprisoned in the dark cell of a heart without hope; don’t give in to resignation. God is bigger than every problem and he is waiting for you in order to love you.”