Photo courtesy of Lippman Commission report
Some of the prisons on Rikers Island, with Queens and the Manhattan skyline in the background.

Updated on March 9 at 1:15 p.m.

At a panel discussion titled “Is Closing Rikers a Dream or a Reality?” on March 8, two prominent Queens representatives agreed that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to close Rikers Island by 2027 and open smaller, borough-based jail facilities is nothing but a dream.

Councilman Robert Holden and Queens Assistant District Attorney James Quinn were the only voices from Queens who sat on the panel hosted by City & State New York. Although de Blasio reached an agreement with the City Council in February to house the inmates from Rikers in existing jail facilities in four boroughs — including the Queens Detention Complex in Kew Gardens — Holden said he can’t see any benefits to the proposed plan.

“There are no advantages to closing Rikers and putting jails in our neighborhoods,” said Holden, who is a member of the Council Committee on Criminal Justice. “I would like to call on the Council to commission a study to determine the cost of a Rikers Island renewal project before we decide instead to shut it down.”

The current inmate population of Rikers Island is nearly 9,000, and part of the mayor’s plan also includes cutting that number down to 5,000 before closing the prison and dispersing those inmates into the borough jails. But the combined capacity of the borough jails is estimated to be 2,300, so Holden believes the nearly $11 billion cost of renovating and expanding them would be too high.

Former New York State Chief Justice Jonathan Lippman led a study performed by the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform Commissioners that determined the reasons for closing Rikers Island are as follows: dilapidated buildings; lack of visitor access to the facility for inmates’ family members; significant time and resources needed to ferry individuals to and from the courts; and the lack of private, safe spaces to provide detainees with effective on-site programming.

“I find it absurd to suggest that borough jails will address these concerns,” Holden said. “While I think that some facilities on Rikers Island should be updated, renovated or redesigned, the security and infrastructure cannot be replicated in borough jails. It’s a self-sustaining operation, and it functions like a well-oiled machine.”

Holden’s stance is significant for its about-face turn from his predecessor’s viewpoint on the subject. Former District 30 Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley once led the charge locally in support of closing Rikers and reopening the Queens Detention Complex, and 10 other Queens lawmakers signed a letter to de Blasio to urge him to make the move.

Chart courtesy of Senior Executive ADA James Quinn

Chart courtesy of Senior Executive ADA James Quinn

Quinn’s position on the matter largely echoed Holden’s, and his main point was that reducing the number of inmates to 5,000 is not realistic. The charts he presented at the discussion explained the math and showed that of the 9,010 total inmates housed at Rikers, only 3,330 can be considered “bailable” offenders. Of those 3,330, 93 percent are accused of committing felonies, and 45 percent of those are class A and B felonies.

In other words, all of those 3,330 inmates would have to be released to cut the inmate population down to 5,000, putting thousands of alleged felons back on the streets. Quinn’s charts also showed that New York City has a lower number of inmates per 100,000 residents than San Diego, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, San Jose, San Antonio, Dallas and Philadelphia.

Quinn added that the arguments for closing Rikers Island have become more irrational over time.

“Do you think the violent culture is going to change in a smaller jail with all violent offenders?” Quinn said in a call with QNS. “Closing Rikers has become more of a slogan for prison reform than a sound correctional policy.”

Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown also voiced his opposition to the closure of Rikers in a testimony delivered to Lippman’s commission in 2016, in which he backed the point Quinn made at the panel.

According to Brown, in October of 2016 there were just 47 Queens misdemeanor defendants detained on Rikers Island. Of those 47, all but one had at least one additional open case, all but eight had prior convictions and all but 16 had a history of failing to appear in court.

The District Attorney added that putting jails in residential areas is not going to go over well with the members of those communities, referencing the protests that broke out in Maspeth when a Holiday Inn Express was planned to become a homeless shelter.

“That scene would be played out all over the city if jails are proposed for residential neighborhoods,” Brown said in his testimony.

Brown concluded that improving existing facilities at Rikers Island, continuing to reform correctional practices and supporting alternative sentencing programs is the best way to move forward.


Join The Discussion

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Miles Hornath May 29, 2018 / 08:52PM
After seeing the Kalif Browder documentary, I know something needs to be done. It made it seem that the Mayor & Governor wanted to close Rikers in response to that tragedy. But it wasn't the location of the jail on Rikers that was or is the problem. Everything wrong with the system will remain in place, while the problem gets moved to a new location. Actually between 4000-4500 inmates should be bailable. If they can't afford bail, they have a right to trial within 6 months. That should be a total of 6 months in custody while awaiting trial. This is not some favor or a liberal idea; it's the US constitution.

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jo March 10, 2018 / 03:35AM
I think by now the public is aware that the crime numbers produced by NYPD are BOGUS. Crime is up. why? ??? because they released so many from Rikers and upstate jails, so they can bring the number down to 5000. That's why they need so many more men's homeless shelters. They're housed there. It's only a matter of time, before they're going to commit a crime BIG enough, that the police will be FORCED to arrest them. If the police actually arrest the criminals that should be in jail, RIKERS will be be overflowing. How are the so called community jails going to handle this.....This decision to close RIKERS is a land grab. Again, only the ones that can leave, or afford to buy condos on Rikers will benefit. As for the rest of us, we better voice our concerns, and take action now, before it's too late.

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