Close Rikers In Under 10 Years? It Can Be Done

After speaking with experts about possible solutions, the Voice believes the "de-facto penal colony" could be closed in five years


In March, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that “New York City will close the Rikers Island jail facility” in ten years, well after his potential second term. Presenting his 2018 executive budget a month later, he repeated his commitment to a decade-long timetable: “I don’t think we can go faster. If we found a way, we would love to.”

The driving force behind the effort to close Rikers is a report from the Lippman Commission, an independent, blue-ribbon panel of experts named after the former chief judge of New York. “Given Rikers’s location and history — and the persistent culture of violence and loss of humanity inherent in a system that is based on isolation — rebuilding on the Island is not an option,” the report stated. The Lippman Commission proposal involves opening new jails across the five boroughs; the ten-year timeline reflects the political and logistical concerns that make “building jails in New York City…a difficult task.”

But while many agree on the need to close down Rikers — a collection of ten facilities (one so decrepit it hasn’t been used since 2000) on a 400-acre island in the East River, between Queens and the Bronx — not everyone believes it should take a decade. Martin F. Horn, who was commissioner of the New York City

Department of Correction from 2003 to 2009, says Rikers must be closed sooner rather than later. In an editorial in the Daily News last month, Horn wrote that real changes must start “now”: “The men and women who work in our city’s jails and those confined there are our fellow New Yorkers, and they cannot wait 10 long years.”

Another critic is Glenn Martin, a member of the Lippman Commission. “National progressive leaders don’t spend ten years closing down torture islands,” Martin told the Voice. “They act swiftly and decisively, in order to save lives.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo also believes the jails should be closed more quickly. “Rikers Island is an abomination. And don’t tell me it’s gonna take ten years to fix that abomination,” Cuomo said in April. “Because when you want to do something, you do it.”

Cuomo, of course, is engaged in a longstanding feud with de Blasio (Martin called Cuomo’s criticism “grandstanding”). Yet if Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio were able to set aside their differences and collaborate on a solution — today — Rikers Island could be closed sooner. After speaking with experts about possible solutions and their feasibility, the Voice believes it could happen in five years.

Doing so would take a combination of criminal justice reform measures that would reduce the city’s total jail population to below 6,000, as well as an aggressive construction effort to build four new borough jails by 2022.

Closing Rikers begins with legislative action that reforms New York State’s criminal justice system so that fewer people are jailed in the first place. Chief among these is the elimination of cash bail. The Lippman report found that on any given day, three-quarters of the roughly 9,700 people held in the city’s jails are awaiting the outcome of their case because they cannot afford to post bail. “A person’s freedom should not be determined by what’s in his or her wallet,” the report states.

The second measure required is the elimination of loopholes in the state’s speedy-trial statute that currently allow prosecutors to stop the clock by simply declaring their readiness for trial. Despite efforts by New York’s judiciary to reduce delay, inordinate slowdowns continue, and only legislative action can fix this problem once and for all.

According to the Lippman report, these reforms, and others, if fully implemented, would reduce the number of people arrested and jailed annually in New York City by roughly one-third — from 11,400 inmates to 7,166.

Alongside that legislative push, the city would have to immediately demolish and rebuild its existing borough jails in Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan and then, in the existing jails’ footprint, build three new facilities.

In its 2018 budget, announced in April, the city allocated $1.1 billion “for the design and construction of new jail facilities.” The city should take that money and immediately retain an architectural design firm with experience building jails in urban environments, tasking it with formulating plans for the new borough jails in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. In the meantime, the demolition of the existing jails can begin.

The size of the new jails is significant. The Lippman Commission recommends a 5,500-bed total capacity city jail system. Horn, the former jail chief, told the Voice that jails housing 800 inmates would be ideal but were likely too small to be economically efficient. “I think 2,000 is the absolute maximum,” Horn said. “There is no ‘ideal’ number above 800 to 1,000, but I think 1,600 would be manageable.” Experts suggest one jail in each borough might be the only realistic approach, and might limit the scope of potential community opposition to the plan.

Horn also suggested that it was necessary to appoint a close-Rikers czar.

“Nobody owns the responsibility to get it done,” Horn said. “Until someone takes ownership of getting it done and has the authority to do so, it will always be in the future. Same as to bail reform. Not only will it take legislative change, and who will champion and advance the legislation?”

As for the construction of new jail facilities, it can actually be done “pretty expeditiously,” according to Dr. Michael P. Jacobson, member of the Lippman Commission and executive director of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance: “From the day you have ULURP [Uniform Land Use Review Procedure] approval and final design, the construction itself can take approximately two to three years.”

The ULURP process is distinct from, but related to, the city’s environmental review process, which also must be cleared. The ULURP process itself runs on a seven-month timeline, but getting to the point of having a ULURP-ready plan can itself take years. Five years would allow two years to do so, and accommodate Jacobson’s two-to-three-year window for construction.

In the Bronx, the city will have to build an entirely new jail, where one never was.

Previously, the Bronx House of Detention was located on land just south of Yankee Stadium. That jail closed in 2000, and the city transferred control of the land to the Related Companies, which tore down the jail and replaced it with a mall. Currently, 800 city inmates, mostly from the Bronx, are held on the city’s prison barge in Hunts Point, known as “the boat.”

While the city no longer controls the land the original Bronx House stood on, it does control a parcel directly behind the Bronx County courthouse, perfectly situated for construction of a jail because it will allow direct access to the courthouse — as will the city’s jails in Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. This would reduce transportation costs and reduce the risk of a prisoner escaping in transit.

That parcel of land is currently occupied by a city school, the Bronx School for Law, Government, and Justice. The school should be razed and a new borough jail built in its place. While the city will have to go through the full ULURP process, says Norman Siegel, a civil rights lawyer and expert in the New York City land use process, the fact that the city already owns the land will shave years off the process, because eminent domain will not have to be invoked.

“This is a very good idea,” Siegel added.

That leaves Staten Island, which is the stickiest part of closing Rikers, since the borough’s political leaders are resolutely opposed to housing their inmates in their own borough. That problem isn’t insurmountable, though.

Once a borough jail is built in the Bronx, the city can move the jail barge currently housing the Bronx’s prisoners to Staten Island. Moving the jail barge to Staten Island can be accomplished via mayoral decree, even over local opposition. Every other county in the state bears the burden of housing its own detainees, and no special exception should be made for Staten Island.

This is hardly an optimal solution, as conditions of confinement on the barge are nearly as inhumane as on Rikers, but it is not meant to be. Staten Island’s recalcitrant leaders should be forced into reconsidering their opposition to a new jail once they are faced with the reality that City Hall can and will impose the jail barge on them, as City Hall imposed it on the Bronx.

This brings us to sentenced city prisoners.

Under New York law, anyone convicted of a misdemeanor and sentenced to jail time serves that time in a facility administered by the county, not the state. According to the Lippman report, approximately 1,300 people are serving misdemeanor jail sentences at any time in the city jail system, mostly on Rikers. The city should build a new penitentiary for city prisoners serving misdemeanor sentences, and it should build it off of Rikers Island, either on city-owned or state-owned land within the city, or upstate on city-owned or state-owned land.

Here, again, is where Governor Cuomo can help close Rikers. Currently, New York State has eleven former prisons for sale in upstate New York, including the former Mount McGregor medium-security correctional facility. The former Summit Correctional Facility, in the Catskills, is also available.

Incarcerating sentenced city prisoners in a refurbished state facility upstate would bring the city’s jail population down to fewer than 6,000 — meaning that, combined with the 800-bed jail barge and anticipated continued reductions in crime, the city’s four new borough jails need not be bigger than roughly 1,500, and Rikers can close as soon as the last new borough jail is completed.

The cost of this plan is roughly the same as the Lippman report’s figure — $11 billion — which could be largely offset by the state’s purchase or lease of Rikers for an expansion of LaGuardia Airport. A legal locking mechanism could even be built into the contract between the city and the state that would preclude either de Blasio’s or Cuomo’s successors from aborting or altering the plan.

If there’s any issue that could unite Cuomo and de Blasio, it’s closing Rikers, according to New York’s former chief judge Jonathan Lippman, chairman of the commission.

“The proposed closure of Rikers represents a rare instance when our political leaders are aligned,” Lippman told the Voice. “As we move from planning to action, we will need courageous political leadership more than ever to make the hard decisions and stay the course.”