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Awesome Idea: Turn Rikers Island Into A Solar Farm

Kate Aronoff wrote about a great idea recently: turn Rikers Island into a solar farm. Transforming a prison that was built on heaps of trash into a solar farm does have many benefits.

Kate Aronoff wrote about a great idea recently: turn Rikers Island into a solar farm. Transforming a prison that was built on heaps of trash into a solar farm does have many benefits.

Her article dives into the past as well as the present of Rikers Island and she points out that both share the story of the United States itself. The island’s ownership has roots traced to slaveowners since the 1660s and played a huge role in the kidnapping ring that sold black people in the North back to slavery in the South under the Fugitive Slave Act. The island was sold in 1884 and it became a penal colony. The island was redesigned into a massive jail complex.

Today, 80% of the island’s landmass is landfill. Aronoff, with her words, painted a picture of an island that is filled with decomposing garbage and prisoners — with 90% of them being people of color. “Heat in the summer can be unbearable, which has lent to its ominous nickname: The Oven,” she wrote. She referenced another account from Raven Rakia who spoke about the island’s “environmental justice horror show.” Rakia noted that 6 of the island’s 10 facilities don’t have any air conditioning.

This horrifying history of Rikers Island is interwoven with decades of lawsuits, campaigns by activists and former inmates, and eventually, the New York City Council made the choice last fall to close down the jail’s facilities within a decade. While this movement to close Rikers was gaining momentum, there was another movement building. A mix of criminal justice groups and environmental groups began meeting to come up with ideas for what could come next.

Cecil Corbin-Mark, the deputy director and director of policy initiatives at WE ACT for Environmental Justice told Aronoff, “Rather than get into a battle with real estate titans of New York City, we wanted to get out ahead of that and stake our claim for Rikers to no longer be the city’s penal colony but a resource of clean energy, jobs, and redistributive justice.”

This movement is supported by New York City Councilor, Costa Constantinides who has been working with WE ACT and the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. He’s introduced a series of bills that are known as a “plan for Renewable Rikers.” These three bills would:

  1. Transfer the deed fro the island away from the Department of Corrections to another to-be-determined agency.
  2. Begin official studies from the city to determine the island’s capacity for renewable energy and new wastewater treatment infrastructure.
  3. Replace several outdated facilities throughout Queens, the district that includes Rikers.

My Thoughts

I have never really thought about the history of Rikers Island (nor have I studied it), particularly since I live in the South. To me, it was just a vague name linked with a prison. Learning about the history and seeing an idea as to how it can take a positive step forward from that painful past is hopeful.

I genuinely love the idea of the island being turned into some type of solar or renewable farm. Elon Musk had an idea about turning 10,000 square miles of U.S. desert into a solar farm that can power the entire country. “Solar power is a Gigawatt per square km! All you need is a 100 by 100-mile patch in a deserted corner of Arizona, Texas, or Utah (or anywhere) to more than power the entire USA,” he shared on Twitter. This isn’t that, but each useful chunk is helpful.

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