Criminal Justice Reform Advocates Respond to Plan to Close Rikers Island

By Kenrya Rankin Apr 03, 2017

On Friday (March 31), New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city’s ten-year plan to close Rikers Island Correctional Center. In the press conference, which you can watch below, de Blasio says that he and New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito view the closure as a step toward ending mass incarceration, which disproportionately impacts Black and Latinx people.

“Rikers Island is an example and an expression of a major national problem. The mass incarceration crisis did not being in New York City, but it will end here. We are going to end the era of mass incarceration by making this important change,” de Blasio said.

He went on to detail what he thinks needs to happen before the jail can be closed. Per the speech transcript:

Job-one is to reduce crime. Reducing crime means reducing jail population. Any talk of getting off Rikers is meaningless if we don’t keep reducing crime. … The neighborhood policing model is absolutely essential to this, and then there’s other pieces of the equation that my colleagues have worked on and the Speaker has been a champion of, such as alternative sentencing and bail reform. These have been crucial pillars of reducing jail population the right way while still protecting public safety. …

Today, we’ve got about 9,500 people in custody in our entire jail system. That number must get down to 5,000 people to allow us to get off of Rikers Island. That’s the goal in this whole process—to get our jail population—overall—all of our jails combined—down to 5,000 people. We believe that can be achieved in the next 10 years.  …

We need our courts to work to be evermore efficient to reduce processing time, to move people in and out of jail more effectively—because one of the problems on Rikers is how long people stay. We want to reduce those times constantly. We also need cooperation from our prosecutors, who have been our close partners in the work reducing crime—they also are important to this equation to continue moving along the judicial process as efficiently as possible. …

And another crucial piece of the puzzle will be reducing recidivism. So, if you think about—all of these pieces are about bringing down that population constantly. Reducing recidivism is a big piece of the puzzle. And we talked earlier in the week about the five hours of programming a day that we’ll be proving to every inmate. Education and training, the re-entry planning—every inmate will get it from literally the day they arrive on Rikers … ready to get off and stay off of Rikers, and all of our jails. And the Jails to Jobs initiative, guaranteeing that anyone who is sentences and serves time in our jail system will leave to a transitional job that will help to get them back on their feet, into long-term employment and away from ay trouble with law enforcement and any further encounter with incarceration.

But he also said that the closure of Rikers will necessitate the opening of additional jails: “At 5,000 inmates, you would still need additional capacity if you left Rikers entirely. We are working under the assumption, we will need at least a few new facilities somewhere in New York City. We do not have any assumption at this point as to how many or where they will be.”

The Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform released a report yesterday (April 2) that also recommends the closure of the facility:

Rikers Island is a stain on our great city. It leaves its mark on everyone it touches: the correction offcers working back-to-back shifts under dangerous conditions, the inmates waiting for their day in court in an inhumane and violent environment, the family members forced to miss work and travel long distances to see their loved ones, the attorneys who cannot easily visit their clients to prepare a defense, and the taxpayers who devote billions of dollars each year to keep the whole dysfunctional apparatus running year after year. Put simply, Rikers Island is a 19th century solution to a 21st century problem. …

Closing Rikers Island is far more than a symbolic gesture. It is an essential step toward a more effective and more humane criminal justice system. We must replace our current model of mass incarceration with something that is more effective and more humane—state-of-the-art facilities located closer to where the courts are operated in civic centers in each borough.

New York Daily News reports that at a press conference to announce the results of the study, public advocate Letitia James said that she wants the land that currently houses the jail to be renamed for Kalief Browder, who was jailed there for three years without trial, eventually resulting in his suicide. Jay Z’s docuseries about his life and death is currently airing on Spike.

Many activists, journalists and prison reform advocates took to Twitter to react to the news: