The proposal to close the Rikers Island Correctional Facility has been around since Ed Koch’s mayoral term in the 1970s—and now it may finally be making serious headway. Reports in both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal say that an independent commission will soon release a 97-page report recommending closure of the facility, which currently holds about 10,000 inmates. And Mayor de Blasio, who had previously withheld from recommending closure due to the high costs, has now agreed on the contours of a plan working toward it. According to the Times, he has been “telling those working on the issue that his position had changed.”
If the closure does happen, it will be a huge undertaking to the tune of $10.6 billion. The report recommends the use of Rikers Island is phased out over the next 10 years and its facilities demolished. Inmates would move to new jails built in each of the five boroughs that “would vary in size, on the expected population in each borough,” according to the report. There would be a total of 5,500 beds across each borough, with the largest jail in Manhattan and the smallest on Staten Island.
Although the mayor has made reforms on Rikers, including more training for officers and less use of solitary confinement, the complex continues to face scrutiny and criticism. Manhattan Borough President Melissa Mark-Viverito called it her "dream” to have a city without the jail complex in her State of the City address last year.
But the city would have to overcome many hurdles to make the momentous closure happen. It’s expected that local politicians and communities will resist opening jails across the five boroughs. And before any new jails can be built, the population of Rikers must be brought down significantly—meaning significant reforms up and down the criminal justice system. The report issues several suggestions to reduce the inmate population and also calls for reducing the uniformed staff at the Department of Correction by more than half.
There have also been many ideas floating around of how the island could be utilized with the complex gone. A number of NYC real estate players are already eyeing the 413-acre island for a potential new mega housing development. But this recent report found that height restrictions and noise from the airport would likely dissuade private investment. The report also noted that housing on the island would also require huge investments in transit.
What’s looking more likely, then, is that LaGuardia Airport could expand there. There has already been a proposal that has travelers entering a transportation hub in the Bronx and then taking an underground Air Train to new concourses, built out on infill land mass that includes Rikers Island. It sounded kooky when it was proposed back in 2015, but the plan seems a bit more possible now.