Image for The plan to turn a notorious New York jail into a green energy hub

The plan to turn a notorious New York jail into a green energy hub

Promising to clean up New York’s electricity grid, while proving jobs for former inmates, the proposals bring new meaning to climate justice

Promising to clean up New York’s electricity grid, while proving jobs for former inmates, the proposals bring new meaning to climate justice

One of the world’s most notorious jails is being reimagined as a renewables hub, which will train former inmates for jobs in the clean energy sector.

Rikers Island, New York City’s dysfunctional jail complex, has been synonymous with violence, neglect and abuse for decades.

Located on a 400-acre island between the Bronx and Queens, it houses the majority of New York’s 5,700 prisoners. Nineteen inmates died there last year amid a decline in already dismal conditions, making 2022 Rikers’ deadliest year in a decade.

The jail is legally required to close by 2027, with inmates being transferred to four new prisons that are currently under construction, although doubts have been cast about the viability of that deadline. Nevertheless, a report by nonprofit the Regional Plan Association (RPA), in partnership with the Rhode Island School of Design, has outlined a vision for its future as a centre for green energy.

In developing its proposal, the RPA worked alongside the Renewable Rikers Coalition, an alliance of groups representing people who have been incarcerated in the complex. Looking beyond its closure, the coalition is calling for Rikers’ redevelopment to benefit communities left scarred by its legacy.

Under the plan, noxious power and sewage treatment plants in the deprived neighbourhoods of the Bronx and Queens would be removed, freeing up 182 acres of land for community use. They would be replaced with sprawling solar arrays, battery storage and new wastewater facilities located on Rikers. 

This is can’t-miss opportunity for the city to reach its decarbonisation goals

The new infrastructure would include a composting and recycling hub, and a research and training institute arming front-line communities with new skills in solar installation and repair.

“Following through on the vision for a renewable Rikers is a can’t-miss opportunity for the city to reach its decarbonisation goals while serving as a national model for climate-focused redistributive justice,” said Moses Gates, the RPA’s vice president.

New York is not the only place reimagining its incarceration facilities. The Netherlands has reduced its inmate population to such a degree that it’s turning old prisons into socially useful buildings, such as schools and refugee centres.

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