News & Politics

It’s Put Up or Shut Up Time for Politicians Who Say They Want to Close Rikers

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The Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform casts a long shadow. Since it was established by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito more than a year ago, the commission, chaired by Jonathan Lippman, the former chief judge of New York, has been steadily working toward a goal that was until very recently considered a political impossibility: the closure of the city’s notoriously brutal jail complex on Rikers Island.

Lippman shrewdly eschewed public funding or political oversight for the project, and stocked his commission with a blue-ribbon roster of unimpeachable experts, including former inmates. He also took care to involve representatives of some of the most powerful interests in the city: Kathryn Wylde, of the business-advocacy group Partnership for New York City, sits on the commission. MaryAnne Gilmartin, president and chief executive officer of real estate giant Forest City Ratner, chaired one of the major subcommittees.

Political momentum for the movement to close Rikers has been steadily growing. Mark-Viverito has led the way in calling for the city’s penal island to be closed, even as Mayor Bill de Blasio suggested the goal was unrealistic. Governor Andrew Cuomo, never one to miss an opportunity to stick a thumb in de Blasio’s eye, soon jumped on the bandwagon. After months of bird-dogging by activists, increasingly isolated in his opposition to closing the island, and facing the imminent release of Lippman’s report, de Blasio attempted to get ahead of the situation Friday with a hastily convened afternoon press conference, where he announced his own support for closing Rikers, even as he refused to commit to the commission’s recommendations. On Sunday, at a packed event at John Jay College, the commission unveiled its report, which you can read in its entirety here.

Both the commission and the mayor suggest that Rikers can be closed over the next ten years, assuming the city’s jail population can be reduced to 5,000, just over half its current level. By closing the island’s ten detention facilities and moving inmates to smaller, more manageable jails in each of the five boroughs, New York could modernize its facilities, bring inmates closer to their court hearings and their family members, and reduce the isolation and concentrated populations that have made Rikers such a nightmare.

And a nightmare it unquestionably is. The damage inflicted on incarcerated people at Rikers — most of whom have not been found guilty of a crime and are on the island awaiting trial — is legendary. Former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who investigated the jail complex in 2014, called it “a place where brute force is the first impulse”, a place “more inspired by Lord of the Flies than any legitimate philosophy of humane detention.” Land at Rikers and you were subject to guard-sanctioned fight clubs or being beaten to death by guards for asking for medical attention; you might be driven to suicidal mental illness in solitary or literally cooked to death. A remote island, far from the rest of the city and from meaningful oversight, where crumbling and antiquated facilities stand atop unstable and toxic landfill, Rikers is, as Lippman said Sunday, “a place that is an affront to humanity and decency and is a stain on our city’s reputation.”

For those unmoved by arguments grounded in humanity and decency, the commission also makes a financial case. Building a modern, humane, efficient jail system would cost about $10.6 billion, the commission estimates, which, assuming the construction was bonded out at normal rates over thirty years, would cost the city about $770 million a year. Add in the debt service on a new training academy for corrections officers, the cost of doubling the length of their training, and funding diversion programs and other alternatives to incarceration, and you’re talking about $1.11 billion a year. But those costs would be more than made up for by savings: At the moment, New York City employs more than 10,000 uniformed corrections officers, more than one guard for every inmate. A smaller jail population housed in modern jails would require fewer than half as many corrections officers, saving an estimated $1.6 billion per year, meaning that closing Rikers and moving the remaining jail population to brand-new, modern jails in the five boroughs would actually save the city more than half a billion dollars a year.

One of the most interesting pieces of the report is its proposed reuses of the island. Unlike the gentrifying industries’ earlier stabs at imagining a way to profit from the closure of Rikers, which included absurd visions of luxury condos crammed between the toxic fill and LaGuardia flight paths, the commission’s proposals are more sophisticated. One concept suggests adding a third runway to the city’s most unloved airport, increasing its flight capacity by 40 percent. Remaining space could be used for critical but NIMBY-prone infrastructure, like water treatment and composting facilities. Another option ditches the runway and includes even more infrastructure, like waste-burning generators and power storage. By siting necessary but unattractive infrastructure on Rikers, the city would be able to close similar facilities currently blighting other neighborhoods. A new wastewater treatment plant on the island would allow the city to close ancient plants in the Bronx, Upper Manhattan, and northern Queens. As the report notes, this would “open up the current facility sites for redevelopment.”

The commission’s report is thoroughly researched and compellingly presented, and for the moment it appears to have political winds at its back. But while elected officials at last see an advantage in calling for Rikers to be shut down, whether they’re committed to doing the hard work to achieve that goal is an open question.

Even with the promise of safer facilities and improved training, overcoming opposition from the correction officers’ union will be a herculean task, though the power of that union is considerably diminished since the indictment of its president last summer.

Building new, better jails in the footprints of old ones might not encounter insurmountable opposition in Manhattan and Brooklyn, or perhaps in Queens, where an existing jail building sits empty. But in the Bronx, where the current jail facility is literally a moldering barge, and in Staten Island, where there is no jail, marshaling the will to build new facilities may be difficult. District attorneys for Staten Island and Queens were conspicuously absent from the dais at the Sunday presentation of the commission’s report. Staten Island Borough President James Oddo made it clear on Twitter that he expects other boroughs to house Staten Island’s inmates. And de Blasio himself, clearly leery of the political fallout of pushing through new jails against neighborhood wishes, has said he has no intention of backing a Staten Island jail, and that rather than moving forward with haste to build the needed facilities, he intends to wait until the jail population has dropped below 7,000 before he undertakes that politically dangerous work.

Getting the jail population down to 7,000, and ultimately to 5,000, will involve systematic reforms that require the cooperation of district attorneys. The three that did see an angle in standing onstage with Lippman for the report’s rollout — Manhattan D.A. Cy Vance Jr., acting Brooklyn D.A. Eric Gonzalez, and Bronx D.A. Darcel Clark — concede their offices bear responsibility for policies that help determine the population of Rikers. As District Attorney Vance intoned, “We are key players in this system and its problems….Today, I am accountable for who goes on to Rikers Island.”

But key pieces of the commission’s plan to draw down the jail population would diminish the power of prosecutors to lock people up for low-level nonviolent offenses, and it’s not clear that Vance and his colleagues are prepared to give that power up. Asked at the press conference whether he endorsed the commission’s call to reclassify four offenses — subway fare–beating, possession of small amounts of marijuana, prostitution, and the possession of so-called gravity knives — from criminal to civil, Vance said he was in support of decriminalizing the first two but waffled on the others. He praised the current regime of trafficking courts, under which sex workers are arrested and presented with a choice between jail or participation in mandatory social service programs, and defended the gravity knife law. “We have enough stabbings in Manhattan,” he said. “Don’t tell me gravity knives aren’t a problem when you have two folks about to fight.”

But if devilish details remain unresolved, and if the coalition of power necessary to end the Rikers era still requires further herding, the city is nonetheless leaps and bounds closer to that goal than it was two years ago, and Lippman says his commission isn’t going to let up. “This has a momentum, and it can’t be stopped,” Lippman told reporters on Sunday. “We are raising money to continue our work and to continue to push and push and push to make this report a reality….We didn’t do this for the exercise.”

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