Rikers Island is a place of Dickensian squalor reached by a bridge from Queens but under the jurisdiction of the Bronx, where the human condition is deplorable by all measures.
A holding center for inmates awaiting trial, the sprawling jail is notorious for its human rights abuses, its violent culture and its neglect of the mentally ill.
An independent commission of 27 New Yorkers from many fields, including some who have been behind bars, spent a year studying Rikers and concluded that the disreputable jail complex be closed. The panel recommended that Rikers’ shrinking population should be distributed among smaller jails in each borough at a cost of $10.6 billion.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who had opposed shuttering Rikers last year, switched gears after being briefed on the report and said Rikers could be abandoned in 10 years if crime in the city continued to fall and the inmate numbers dropped to 5,000 from about 9,000 today.
In 10 years another mayor will be running City Hall and hearing the howls from community boards that don’t want a new jail in their backyard. De Blasio won’t be around to feel the heat, but at least he and Gov. Andrew Cuomo finally agree on an issue: Lock the jail.
Last year reports that City Hall was considering shutting Rikers and moving the jails to College Point next to the Police Academy set off fierce opposition in northeast Queens.
Despite the obstacles, closing Rikers is the only rational move for the city, the public and the younger inmates who have been recruited by gangs, only to end up back on the streets as hardened criminals.
Non-violent offenders can spend months or longer warehoused at Rikers because they can’t afford to post low bail.
Guards who have lost their humanity at Rikers continue to brutalize inmates, a federal monitor found recently. Under pressure from correction officers, Albany passed a bill in 2014 that transferred the prosecution of Rikers crime to the Queens DA from the Bronx DA. The officers claimed the Bronx was softer on inmates than their own ranks and Queens would give them a fairer shake. Both district attorneys fought the measure, which died on the governor’s desk.
The city jail system must be overhauled to create facilities that are safer for both guards and inmates. Programs should be improved to treat drug offenders and the many mentally ill. Low-level offenses such as prostitution and fare-beating should be downgraded to civil rather than criminal cases.
Rikers is the poster child for everything that can go wrong with an urban penal colony.