The Perils and Potential of Closing Rikers Island

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Closing Rikers would require changes throughout the city's justice system. That many of those fixes are underway suggests shuttering Rikers is not impossible, but the resistance to some of those more modest reforms indicates how hard it would be.

Jarrett Murphy

Closing Rikers would require changes throughout the city's justice system. That many of those fixes are underway suggests shuttering Rikers is not impossible, but the resistance to some of those more modest reforms indicates how hard it would be.

When one brings up the idea of closing down Rikers, there is a sense of great risk, that air of uncertainty that arises when you suggest reinventing the wheel – but at the same time, it’s bracing to think about the city taking on a policy change that is truly about more than tinkering around the edges.

Although her social justice advocacy organization, VOCAL-NY, has not developed an articulated position on whether or not the city should close down Rikers Island, Alyssa Aguilera seems to think that a consensus is slowly emerging among her peers. “I was in a meeting the other day with a bunch of advocacy folks and we were saying, ‘If you could be mayor, what would you do?’ And so many of these people who I was not expecting to hear this from were saying, ‘Close Rikers, close Rikers, close Rikers.'”

This is the fourth article in a series co-published with City & State. Click here to read more.

This is the fourth article in a series co-published with City & State. Click here to read more.

“These were not lefty organizers,” she added. “They were social workers who ran youth advocacy programs.”

From the activists coalescing around #ShutDownRikers and the Jails Action Coalition who say Rikers is a “factory of human rights abuses” to the smattering of people in city government who have embraced the call, there is a sense that it is possible for the city to bypass incremental reform in favor of wholesale change.

“You have to ask yourself, is reform at the margins enough?” says John Jay College of Criminal Justice President Jeremy Travis. “Maybe a monitor appointed by the federal court would help, maybe more (Department of Investigation) investigations would help, and maybe a special prosecutor would help. But if we step back from all of that, we ask ourselves, what’s the long-term vision for the city of New York, the most progressive city in America?”

It’s precisely because the “most progressive city in America” now has a progressive mayor that advocates see an opportunity to close Rikers Island. Michael Jacobson, the former New York City correction commissioner and current director of CUNY’s Institute for State and Local Governance, says closing Rikers and replacing it with smaller and more community-based detention centers would require an enormous effort to re-educate the public, but that it is something progressive Mayor Bill de Blasio might be able to accomplish. “Part of the issue with Bloomberg was as much as (Bloomberg’s Correction Commissioner) Martin Horn said, ‘I’m not really building new jails, I’m not building any new capacity, I’m tearing down capacity there and building it here,’ at some level they just didn’t believe him – or not him, they just didn’t believe Bloomberg,” Jacobson says. “That’s why I think de Blasio would have a big advantage there. I think that if he said a version of this, they would believe him.”

Certainly there is plenty in the air about criminal justice reform – not just in New York but all around the country – particularly since the anguished summer of civilian deaths at the hands of police in Ferguson and Staten Island last year, the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and President Barack Obama’s visit to the El Reno federal prison in Oklahoma last July, featured in an HBO/Vice documentary special. The intensified interest in law-enforcement injustices on the street – in traffic stops and quality-of-life encounters – would seem to dovetail with a greater awareness of the injustices that go on behind bars, away from citizen journalists armed with smartphone cameras.

Whether that heightened awareness translates into a death sentence for Rikers depends not just on the politics of closing down one of the largest correctional facilities in country, but on elected officials’ ability to come up with something to replace it.

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City Limits contacted all 51 members of the City Council, the five borough presidents and the three citywide officials to ask whether they support closing Rikers. Most were noncommittal.

Joining the vocal “close Rikers” position of Daniel Dromm, Councilmen Brad Lander and Corey Johnson voiced the most support for shuttering the jail. “What we need is a road map to close Rikers through smart, step-by-step reform,” Lander said in a statement. “That means locking up fewer people for low-level offenses, as the speaker has proposed. It means more supervised release, where the mayor is leading. It means overall bail reform, so we’re detaining people when there is a public safety risk, not because they’re poor. It may mean using technology in new ways. Step-by-step, we can dramatically reduce the number of people who are detained, so we can then close Rikers, which has become a shameful mark on our city.”

Elizabeth Crowley, Rosie Mendez and Karen Koslowitz were undecided on the issue. Through her press officer, Mendez says she believes “major reforms” are needed to “address systemic issues so incidents like the ones that happened at Rikers never happen again.” She also said the relative accessibility of Rikers is better than having to travel upstate, although that is not necessarily where Rikers inmates would be relocated.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said that while the idea to shift detainees to smaller community-based facilities “could make a lot of sense” and “is worthy of further study,” finding sites for the new facilities would be a “deeply arduous task, logistically, financially and politically.”

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams was strongly on the side of reform and against closing Rikers. “I believe closing down Rikers would create more problems for our city than it would solve,” he said in a statement. “Eliminating the complex is not a safe option.”

Most of the City Council members as well as the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island borough presidents did not respond.

Public Advocate Letitia James stressed continued critiques of the system. “Too many people are being held on Rikers for low-level offenses,” she said, calling for reducing violence, improving the quality of medical care, and protecting the correction officers on the island. She has also petitioned the Board of Correction to increase mental-health training for correction officers, and formally opposed recently proposed rollbacks in solitary confinement reforms. But she did not address the possibility of closing Rikers in her response to our questions.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer – whose stinging October report about Rikers was among the more damning – neither embraced nor rejected the idea when contacted in early November. “By every metric, Rikers Island is failing inmates, guards and taxpayers,” he said in a statement. While he pointed out that Rikers’ costs are rising even as inmate population declines, he would only say that “the city must consider all options as we look to build a truly 21st-century correctional system.”

But in a sign of how quickly the conversation is evolving, Stringer had stronger words when he appeared at a Center for New York City Affairs at The New School forum on Nov. 18. “We need to create a corrections system that is a national model rather than an urban shame, and create a system that recognizes the difference between violent, nonviolent, mentally ill and most importantly child (offenders),” he said. “We’ve got to work together to figure out how to shut it down once and for all … transform our jail system from an aging embarrassment to a 21st-century success.”

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Leadership on this issue is unlikely to come from a politician aiming for higher office – as many of the officials surveyed likely are. If a move toward closing Rikers is really going to be made, it would have to start with the mayor.

Talking about mothballing an institution that’s been key to criminal justice in New York City for decades would be an obvious and considerable political risk for the mayor, who has seen his political capital dwindle steadily since his election thanks to vicious attacks and personal missteps. But it would seem that the potential game-changing effect of closing Rikers Island could enhance his chances of not only a second-term victory, but also an enduring legacy.

After all, de Blasio has run into criticism that he has not been “progressive enough” for much of his constituency, hence the putative mayoral candidacies of James, Stringer and U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries. Meanwhile, Bloomberg-style technocrats have faulted the mayor for failing to come up with truly groundbreaking ideas. Closing Rikers could appeal to both crowds. Besides, those New Yorkers who think de Blasio is too soft on crime are unlikely to vote for him anyway.

None of that is to say that closing Rikers would be a light lift for the mayor, or any politician. “Even liberals don’t like to get mugged,” says political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “The fatal flaw in leftist thinking is that somehow crime doesn’t matter. The argument is that the housing of people in this manner is unnecessary and that abuses that have been uncovered and the cost of the policing and the personnel is overwhelmingly wasteful. The real issue is what’s the midpoint that satisfies the body politic by making sure that they are safe, because average New Yorkers cannot make a distinction between sentenced inmates and detained inmates.”

Lawyer-activists like Khary Lazarre-White, executive director of advocacy group The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, thinks the political push to end Rikers must be motivated by priorities about racial justice. “If (reforming and possibly closing Rikers) has previously been articulated by policymakers, if we have an administration that says that it wants to transform the issue, where is the big-vision thinking? Why is it not occurring? Where is the political capital?” he mused at the Center for New York City Affairs forum. “I think the answer is that the people on Rikers Island are poor and overwhelmingly black and brown, and it is not a priority.”

The very scale of the task, and the deftness it would take to accomplish it, is why it could possibly cement the mayor’s legacy. “It would require a huge investment of political capital, and a lot of planning – this is not like figuring out how to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge,” Jacobson says. “Closing Rikers and shrinking the population or replacing Rikers with humane, state-of-the-art facilities … whoever gets the credit, gets international credit for that.”

Some have suggested that the real-estate development opportunities for the island could be enormously desirable, as well. If de Blasio could somehow thoughtfully manage the development potential of 413 acres of city-owned land (with river views, no less), it could be a late-innings home run.

“Rikers … happens to be a beautiful piece of land,” Jacobson says. “And you could imagine, whether it’s affordable housing, or CUNY campuses, whatever it is, the reuse value of that is potentially gigantic.”

Brooklyn's courthouse, in the background, and the House of Detention there. A Bloomberg administration push to move large numbers of inmates off Rikers to the Brooklyn House and to a new jail in the Bronx ran into fierce opposition.

Jarrett Murphy

Brooklyn's courthouse, in the background, and the House of Detention there. A Bloomberg administration push to move large numbers of inmates off Rikers to the Brooklyn House and to a new jail in the Bronx ran into fierce opposition.

Looming large in the equation is Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association President Norman Seabrook. While a recent New York Times piece ran a headline explicitly naming Seabrook the man whose “clout is a roadblock to reform,” he is a skilled and savvy political operator who might not be fundamentally opposed to change at Rikers.

“I happen to have a lot of respect for Norman,” says Horn, the former correction commissioner. “He’s looked Elizabeth Crowley in the eye and said, ‘Are you volunteering to have the new jail in your district?’ And his members, you have members who live in the Bronx, who live in Queens, I’m sure they’d be happy not to have to travel to Rikers Island and not to have to cross the Triborough Bridge from the Bronx or Manhattan. I think making Norman Seabrook the demon is kind of a cop-out.”

The attack on a correction officer early this month that put Rikers on lockdown for two days has prompted Seabrook to at least indirectly critique what he views as top-down reform. “On the eve of the release of new ‘use of force’ guidelines from the Department of Correction, which we were not consulted on, one of our members is laying in a hospital bleeding from multiple slash wounds to his head and face,” he said in a statement.

He went on to reassert that reform is the best route, as long as correction officers are part of the conversation. “The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association has been calling for real reform at Rikers Island for years,” he wrote. “In order to achieve the fundamental changes that we need to take place, we need the leaders of this city and the Department to bring all parties – including Correction Officers – to the table and into the discussion. Reform is a two-way street, and for far too long the 9,000 members of COBA have been left out of the discussion on how to fix the problems.”

In a reply to City Limits, Seabrook did not seem open to abandoning the island and its crumbling infrastructure, saying that although they “do not meet the standards of modern correctional facilities,” he called for making “a real investment as a city in making Rikers Island a safer, better place for the thousands of women and men who patrol that dangerous precinct every day.”

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So far, the mayor seems to have been putting all his faith in a progressive and multi-pronged reform process. But the fact is, the reforms already in place and trends already in motion could make the task of closing Rikers easier – if not politically, then practically. As bail reforms and reductions in arrests slim the inmate population, the task of relocating that crowd off the island becomes somewhat easier.

But that raises the question of what to replace Rikers with, since the city would presumably still have several hundred inmates and pretrial detainees.

John Jay’s Travis envisions community-based “justice centers” that could be part of the country’s imperative to “reduce the stigmatization of people who have in this case been accused of, not even convicted of, violating the law.”

The Bloomberg administration tried to create two neighborhood-based jails during the mayor’s second term, with an ambitious plan to revamp the Brooklyn Detention Complex and a bid to build a new facility at Oak Point in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. The Brooklyn plan was scaled back and the Bronx idea was scrapped altogether in the face of local opposition.

Who's calling for Rikers to close? Who's hoping to fix it instead? Read the other stories in this series.

Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office

Who's calling for Rikers to close? Who's hoping to fix it instead? Read the other stories in this series.

Horn chalks up that defeat largely to then-city Comptroller William Thompson’s 2009 suit to force the administration to put its Brooklyn plan through the uniform land-use review procedure, which made it vulnerable to very localized opposition. “If the City Council member whose district the facility is located in objects, then the council will not approve it,” Horn said. “We could conceivably have four facilities with no more than 1,600 people located in the boroughs, with sentenced prisoners remaining on Rikers. It’s a matter of political will, but are the mayor and the speaker willing to lean on three council members?”

The local community board near Oak Point is still adamantly against any new proposal. “We have six schools in our district that are failing. And yet the plan is to build another jail in New York City in a district that is so impoverished?” says Community Board 2 spokesperson Ian Amritt. “We will fight it and I guarantee you we are going to win.”

“We have worked hard to get rid of Spofford,” he continues, referring to a juvenile detention facility in the area that was closed after intense lobbying. The area already has one jail: The Vernon Bain barge, which supplements Rikers’ capacity, is moored on its shore. “I think one is enough. There is no guarantee that locals would be hired to build and staff it. We would prefer capital projects be directed toward education and more police in our district.”

Wherever replacement facilities are located, fierce not-in-my-backyard opposition is likely to arise. “There’s an enormous political risk for the mayor,” Horn says. “You’re going to get tremendous opposition from the very groups that supported you during your election, and the test of political courage is whether you can look them in the eye and say that’s the right thing to do.”

JustLeadershipUSA Director Glenn Martin agrees that educating the public is essential. “The biggest pushback NIMBY-ism is going to come from the very people who probably would benefit most from reducing bed space and holding officers accountable and getting rid of cash bail and all the stuff that it would actually take to close Rikers,” he says. “It’s not just about engaging those communities to avoid NIMBY-ism, it’s about engaging them to repair the harm that’s been caused.”

The re-education of New Yorkers, both middle-class moderates and the working class and working poor who live in the neighborhoods where the smaller jails would be built, should be seen as a gradual process, a 10-year plan, Travis says. Rikers’ closure should be done in phases, he thinks, rather than all at once.

In a sense the re-education process about prisons and criminal justice is already underway, with a new national conversation coalescing around critiques of mass incarceration and overzealous policing, and how those things seem to feed an unending cycle of imprisonment and violence. After so many years of expanding the pool of social undesirables and dealing with them by locking them up so they can no longer be seen or heard, there seems to be a growing momentum for change.

“The end game (of closing Rikers) could be pretty attractive politically,” Jacobson says. “But how to make the political calculation is beyond me. In the meantime, while they figure it out, I think folks are working pretty diligently. Whether people come out for its closing or not, they are working to create the environment where that could happen.”

3 thoughts on “The Perils and Potential of Closing Rikers Island

    • I don’t think you get it, Riker’s is full of guys driving on suspended licences who couldn’t get released on recognizance and kids who produced a dime bag when the cops tossed their pockets as well as schizophrenic homeless men who flipped out on the subway. Actual gang-bangers are few and far between. The question is, should all of the above be housed together for months while their cases crawl through the criminal courts?

      My self I place the blame for dysfunction squarely on the Corrections Department, leadership and staff. They have the keys, they run the facilities, they set the culture; it is only Correction’s incompetence and dereliction that has allowed the “inmates to take over the asylum”. Dismiss them all and replace them with new staff, who aren’t dirtbags, and the facilities will improve accordingly.

      • The straighten out the Correction Department but leave Rikers open. If not for Rikers even more thugs would be walking our streets.

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