Mayor vows to start process that will close Rikers Island for good within a decade

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Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in a press conference on March 31 that he would work on a plan to close Rikers Island in 10 years.

According to The New York Times, the city will move to a system of smaller, borough-based jails once the population is further reduced. The mayor recently announced a number of upgrades to improve the jail, which has been marred by violence but never publicly backed completely shutting it down.

In 2016, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito proposed shutting down the jail and she requested that a group look at the viability of that plan.

The commission, formally known as Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, is composed of criminal justice reform groups, corrections groups, former prosecutors, the business community and more.

In its 97-page report reviewed by The New York Times, the commission recommended that the jail be closed and that instead, inmates be moved to smaller jails in each borough. Constructing the jails, which in total would include 5,500 beds, would cost approximately $10.6 billion.

The largest jail would be located in Manhattan and the smallest in Staten Island. The mayor is expected to announce a plan similar to the one in the report.

“There is no doubt that the road to Rikers Island’s closure will be long and arduous,” de Blasio said in a statement. “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 prison population has been declining for years. The average daily population has decreased by 18 percent since 2013 when there were 11,696 inmates compared to 9,758 in 2016.

The mayor’s goal is to reduce that population to 5,000 and, according to the report, that can be accomplished by holding fewer people on bail, expanding diversion programs for those with mental illness and drug offenders and making low-level offenses like fare-beating marijuana possession in public and prostitution as civil instead of court cases.

Advocates have been pushing the mayor to close the jail and a number of rallies were held in Astoria and Long Island City by jail advocates. The push has come after Kalief Browder, a Bronx resident who was held in the jail for three years beginning at age 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack, killed himself after charges were dropped and he was released.

Glenn Martin, a member of the Lippmann Commission and founder of JustLeadershipUSA, which advocates for cutting the jail population in half by 2030, told QNS earlier this month that he was “very confident” that the jail would be closed.

“I’m also convinced, even as an advocate, that the data and the research about Rikers Island leads people to the same conclusion I started out with, which is that we have a facility that we’ve allowed to continue to grow and operate and it’s turned into a place that not just turns out a tremendous amount of human carnage but a place that is extremely expensive to operate and highly dysfunctional,” he said.

According to a report released by Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office in 2016, fight and assault infractions increased by 25 percent last year. Inmate assaults on staff decreased by 8 percent but use of force by corrections officers increased by 14 percent.

The report also found that of the nation’s five largest city jail systems, the cost per inmate is the highest in New York. In New York, the cost per inmate is $112,665 per year. In the next largest jail system, Chicago, the city spends only $55,636 per inmate per year.

A Daily News reported last August that Corrections bosses routinely under-report violent incidents at the jail.

“They lie about the use of force statistics,” said an officer who asked to remain anonymous. “This is a practice to keep the stats down.”

When the paper reviewed 11 cases, they found that nine had been downgraded. Sources told the Daily News that violent incidents are often not recorded. Security Chief Turhan Gumusdere often tells officers to “make it go away.”

In March 2016, rumors spread that land near the NYPD Academy in College Point could be developed into a prison if Rikers Island were to close. This drew intense backlash from residents and elected officials, who vowed to fight the plan.

The 413-acre parcel of land could not be turned into a site for affordable housing because of height restrictions and airport noise, The New York Times said the report found. Another plan includes expanding LaGuardia Airport.

“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 this reality.”

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