BY ARIEL HERNANDEZ
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan on Friday to close the controversial 85-year-old Rikers Island jail facility within the next decade.
And two days after the mayor’s announcement, the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform released a 150-page report outlining a blueprint for reducing the city’s jail population and developing a new, smaller jail system throughout the five boroughs that would replace Rikers.
Rikers Island—the city’s main jail complex—can only be accessed by crossing the Francis Buono Bridge, which spans the East River from Astoria across to the jail.
According to the commission’s report, the first step to closing Rikers Island is to reduce the population from 9,500 inmates to 5,000. The new system would include five facilities, one in each borough, that would be located near courthouses and public transportation. The facilities, which are projected to save the city approximately $1.1 billion, would be designed to blend into the communities in which they are located, with the exterior walls matching nearby buildings and the interiors being a blend of housing and program space, resulting in more efficient prisoner management by staff and encouraging programs for detainees.
“This is a bold, progressive plan that will ultimately improve the lives of inmates and staff alike, making us all safer while also saving taxpayer dollars,” said Michael Jacobson, the commission’s executive director.
Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) praised the mayor’s plan for shutting down Rikers.
“For too long, Rikers Island has been a black hole for human rights,” Dromm said. “Rikers Island’s culture of violence remains a constant threat to the well-being of both corrections officers and the incarcerated. It has become emblematic of all that is wrong with our criminal justice system.”
Last year the #CLOSErikers campaign launched, focusing on fixing the city’s failed criminal justice system.
“This is for Kalief Browder and all the Kaliefs that went through the Abu Ghraib of NYC,” said Darren Mack, a #CLOSErikers member, referencing the 16-year-old who spent three years in the jail without trial after allegedly stealing a backpack and later committed suicide.
The Legal Aid Society’s Attorney-in-Chief Seymour James Jr. described de Blasio’s announcement as a dream finally becoming a reality.
“Rikers Island has been a long scourge to this city, besetting justice, perpetuating recidivism and destroying black and brown communities,” James said.
While some nonprofit organizations and local elected officials praised the announcement to shutter the jail, state Sen. Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) believes it was a failed approach to fixing a significant problem.
“In order to best serve New York City residents, Mayor de Blasio should concentrate more on ways to improve the situation at Rikers, instead of creating new problems with siting facilities across the boroughs, generating multiple security and public-safety issues throughout the city,” Addabbo said. “It seems that, once again, this administration is looking to merely discard an entire program, much like it has done with cluster sites for homeless individuals, instead of looking for ways to fix it.”
The commission’s report also made reference to how the jail’s 400 acres of land could be utilized when Rikers closes— a possible expansion of LaGuardia Airport that would serve approximately 12 million more passengers annually. Additionally, the site could serve as an energy infrastructure base that could power nearly 30,000 homes, reduce landfill waste and help divert untreated water from the city’s waterways.
According to the commission’s report, the aforementioned uses for the site could generate $7.5 billion in annual economic activity and create more than 50,000 jobs.