By Bill Parry
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Friday he will back a plan to close down Rikers Island just days before a blue-ribbon panel is set to make its report public. The Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform proposal is expected recommend phasing out the notorious prison complex within the decade in favor of five smaller community jails located across the city.
“New York City has always been better than Rikers Island,” de Blasio said. “I am proud to chart a course for our city that lives up to reality.”
Last year, the mayor called to notion of closing Rikers Island a “noble idea” but one too expensive to consider, but a grassroots Close Rikers movement has grown rapidly since the suicide of Kalief Browder in 2015. Arrested as a 16-year-old for stealing a backpack, Browder spent the next three years on Rikers Island where he suffered frequent beatings by guards and inmates and spent nearly 300 days in solitary confinement, without ever being charged, all because his family couldn’t afford the $3,000 bail.
While the de Blasio administration has instituted numerous reforms and reduced the Rikers Island population by 23 percent from an average of 11,478 in December 2013 to an average of 9,362 this month, the “culture of violence” among prisoners and guards has remained undiminished. The prison complex is considered to too dilapidated and too costly to renovate, experts say.
“Our success in reducing crime and reforming our criminal justice system has paved the path off Rikers Island and toward community-based facilities capable of meeting our criminal justice goals,” de Blasio said. “There is no doubt that the road to Rikers Islands’ closure will be long and arduous. It will require that local officials and stakeholders stand up and support facilities that meet our moral obligation to thousands of New Yorkers whose lives we will never turn our backs on. It will require that our state government, and each component of our criminal justice system, contribute to the reform efforts critical to reducing our jail population and improving re-entry services and educational programming. The length of this process will also require continued investment in the facilities and conditions on Rikers Island that remain key to rehabilitation efforts for thousands of New Yorkers in the years ahead.”
City Comptroller Scott Stringer became the first citywide elected official to demand the closure of Rikers Island in November 2015, calling it an “urban shame” in a speech at the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School.
“For decades, society built bigger jails instead of bigger schools, as America tried to be ‘tough on crime’ instead of smart on crime. The result of our backward approach relegated communities of color — often poor — to an unrelenting cycle of crime and poverty. It’s affected a generation of Americans and New Yorkers,” Stringer said. “Rikers is an example of an antiquated approach. Today’s announcement is an important one, because we must be a society that gives people a second chances. To do that, Rikers must shut down. The mayor has done the right thing — and we celebrate it.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr