Rikers Island, an island in New York City’s East River, was named after a family that owned enslaved people and was expanded with garbage landfill that still releases methane today. Since 1935, the island houses a jail which has become known as one of the largest correctional facilities in the world, notorious for its unchecked culture of violence and abuse. In 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his intention to close the jail on Rikers Island within ten years.
Renewable Rikers is an environmental justice project that proposes to convert the island to a source of renewable energy when the jail closes. It is also a set of three local laws (Local Laws 31, 17, and 16), passed by the New York City Council in 2021, that encapsulate the proposed plan. Local Law 16, establishes a process, already begun, to gradually transfer control of Rikers Island away from the Department of Corrections to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. Local Laws 31 and 17 require feasibility studies for situating wastewater treatment, composting, and renewable energy generation on the island. Most importantly, Renewable Rikers is a plan for restorative justice that links decarbonization with decarceration. It will allow for the closure of New York City’s toxic peaker power plants and aging wastewater treatment facilities in overburdened, frontline communities, those most impacted by environmental racism and mass incarceration, and will mandate that the island’s new uses benefit and involve the communities that have been harmed. To learn more about the project, see our Resources section.
These video dances reflect in an embodied way on this history and its proposed remedy. They grow out of a live performance laboratory that was scheduled to gather dancers and activists in movement and discussion about Renewable Rikers at the NYC Department of Transportation’s Car Free Earth Day in 2020. The performance was canceled due to Covid-19, and given the challenges of the pandemic, our process went online, elongated, and transformed. These four video triptychs, with footage shot by the dancers themselves, are the result.
While these videos are not a literal representation of the devastating incarceration at Rikers nor the proposed plans for renewable energy and repair, they evoke themes of ritual, remediation, renewability, and confinement. They seek justice and interrogate renewability. The movements created by each dancer grow out of questions such as: how will we acknowledge the island’s past? What is the difference between renewal and renewability? What does the island need? What is environmental justice? And what would you say to someone in a future in which incarceration is a thing of the past? The dances are a way of metabolizing, or physically processing, these questions in search of a future that is just, reparative, and life-honoring.
Renewable was made possible with support from the Bay & Paul Foundations, Broadway Advocacy Coalition, the Center for Urban Environmental Reform at CUNY School of Law, and Women Building Up, a project of the Tides Center. Special thanks to David Bury, Su Friedrich, Emily Goes, Melissa Mahabir, Alejandra Ospina, Leia Squillace, Susan Sturm, and Sorat Tungkasiri. Gratitude to Krishna Washburn and Darkroom Ballet for the disability rights advocacy that led to the audio described versions of these videos.