At a hastily-arranged press conference held in the City Hall Rotunda on Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced that “New York City will close the Rikers Island jail facility” within a decade.
“This is a historic announcement,” the mayor told reporters. “We now have a real plan. This is a day New Yorkers have been waiting for.”
The announcement comes only two days before the release of a long-awaited report on criminal justice reform in New York City headed up by former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. The Lippman Commission held town hall meetings across the city, consulted experts, and invited members of the public to submit their views on the issue of closing Rikers Island.
Yet both the mayor and the speaker claimed to have not read the report, which was commissioned by Mark-Viverito in 2015 and leaked to the New York Post, which broke the story last night. The mayor said he was announcing the decision now, because “we are the deciders,” referring to himself and Speaker Mark-Viverito.
“We have to see this through. The speaker and I came to the point of realizing we had an agreement on the key elements. It was time to say that.”
While the mayor said that the city would draw down its jails population from 9,300 to 5,000, he refused to state why that number was necessary to close Rikers, and admitted that his plan was more of an “outline” than a written proposal.
“It’s not a publishable plan,” the mayor said. “When I say we have a plan, we have the outline of what we’re going to do. It’s enough for me to call it a plan because we have timelines, we understand what it’s going to take.”
Both the mayor and the speaker refused to say whether the construction of a new jail facility on Rikers would go forward. Construction on that 1,489-bed jail, was approved under Mayor Bloomberg, began in mid-to-late 2016, but was paused to allow the Lippman Commission to finish its work and issue its report.
“We’re not ruling in or ruling out anything,” de Blasio said. “I have no preconceived notions, literally none.”
Practically, the City faces major obstacles in actually closing the facilities on Rikers Island because the decision means that smaller jails must be constructed in each borough to accommodate the prisoners. Those jails will have to face the City’s formidable ULURP process against serious community opposition.
“Those of us that are in this battle have a responsibility to challenge every individual in this city to look at the incarcerated people with humanity,” Mark-Viverito said. “After decades of having a system that what it wants to do is strip away the dignity of individuals that have had some level of interaction with the criminal justice system, we trying to bring some humanity back.”
She added, “Are we gonna give people a second chance? Or are we gonna write them off?”
De Blasio promised a “full open public process. Nothing happens unless the full city council votes out in the open for it.” He also noted that Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature will be essential in shutting the jail down. “The State has to help us improve the way the courts handle cases, because a big piece of the population on Rikers is folks awaiting trial.”
“I feel like the work begins here,” said Glenn Martin, who helped spearhead the movement to close Rikers as the founder of JustLeadershipUSA, a group advocating the reduction of the American prison population by half, by 2030. “It took Close Rikers twelve months to convince the mayor of New York City. I’m confident that we can turn our efforts toward the City Council and convince them too.”
The Lippman report will be released to the public on Sunday at 11 a.m.