Close it? Campaign seeks to shutter NYC's Rikers Island jail
Jan. 09, 2016
NEW YORK (AP) — Inside and outside of New York City's government, chatter is increasing about a once-unthinkable idea: shutting down the notorious Rikers Island jail complex.
A coalition of dozens of advocacy groups says it intends to pressure the mayor and other elected officials to take a stand, arguing the 400-acre island in the East River where most of the city's 10,000 inmates are held is too broken to be fixed, plagued by a culture of brutality, misconduct and corruption.
They are up against a formidable opposition that derides the effort as a fantasy that ignores political and practical realities.
Backers of the shut-it-down movement say the fundamental problem with Rikers is the very nature of the isolated and decades-old jail compound itself. They propose drastically decreasing the inmate population through changes in bail, diversion programs and other means, and then building a collection of new, better-designed jails in the city's five boroughs, where defendants are arrested and tried.
"This issue is no longer fringe; it's now mainstream," said Glenn Martin, founder of the nonprofit group JustLeadershipUSA, which seeks to decrease the number of Americans behind bars. "This is much more political than it is policy, and it requires people spending political capital and having the courage to do it."
Modeling their efforts on the nearly decade-long successful effort to change the state's harsh Rockefeller-era drug laws, advocates are specifically targeting Mayor Bill de Blasio, framing the effort as a legacy piece for the liberal Democrat who was swept into office with a promise to fix inequities in the nation's largest city.
De Blasio's criminal justice coordinator, Liz Glazer, didn't dismiss the idea, noting the administration is trying to reduce the number of people who go to jail.
"We definitely subscribe to the idea that things need to change in a fundamental way," Glazer said. "There are a lot of ways that can happen. Certainly moving off the island is one of them."
But Glazer noted that doing so would be neither easy nor necessarily up to the city alone. The inmate population would have to be cut in half "to even be in the ballpark," she said, adding that leeway on bail requires the approval of state lawmakers and that faster court processing times are up to multiple stakeholders.
The push for changes at Rikers began in 2014 after reports by The Associated Press on dozens of deaths there that highlighted poor supervision, questionable medical care and failure to prevent suicides.
Progress has been modest. The administration has invested tens of millions to recruit and train new guards, appointed a reform-minded commissioner who has reduced the use of solitary confinement, and overhauled how 16- and 17-year-old inmates are jailed.
But violence remains high, with overall use-of-force figures and jailhouse stabbings and slashings up, even as the inmate population continues to decline.
Opposition to shuttering Rikers comes not just from those in neighborhoods that could conceivably absorb the new jails, but also from some who see the effort as inherently risky and others who reject the notion that the complex is unsalvageable.
"I can't think of anything less politically realistic than building jails across communities in the five boroughs, so I prefer to focus my reform efforts on what's possible and doable," said Councilman Rory Lancman.
The powerful correction officers' union boss, Norman Seabrook, said he also opposes the idea, arguing advocates should pressure the city to invest in rebuilding the dilapidated Rikers "rather than just simply saying, 'Burn it down.'"
A spokesman for City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said she is studying the idea.
Among those who supported the idea at a recent forum on the issue was City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who said that while city officials continue to implement federally mandated reforms to curb guard brutality and misconduct, they should also envision a world without Rikers.
"We need to create a 21st-century corrections system that is a national model, rather than an urban shame," he said. "As we implement the consent decree, I believe we must also plan for the day when Rikers Island can be safely and responsibly closed."
Associated Press reporter Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.