Earlier this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio revealed that he had had a change of heart regarding Rikers Island, which the New York Times editorial board called a “jail complex synonymous with brutality, incompetence, corruption and neglect,” in April this year.
Just last year he deemed the closure of the island “unrealistic,” but today he’s unveiled what he’s calling Smaller, Safer, Fairer: A Roadmap to Closing Rikers Island. In essence, it’s a plan to shutdown Rikers within 10 years, significantly reduce the number of people who are incarcerated in New York City, and transfer incarcerated individuals to separate prisons in each borough, that will have the capacity to house inmates comparable to the size of their total population.
“New York City is at the forefront both of ending mass incarceration and reducing crime,” de Blasio said in a statement. “We have the smallest rate of incarceration of any big city in the country and crime continues to drop. Closing Rikers Island is a continuation of this important work. We are building a correctional system that is smaller, safer and fairer – one in which jails are safe and humane.”
At present, there are about 9,400 people in the city’s jails each day. That number has reduced drastically since 1990, and 18 percent since de Blasio took office. The facilities in each of the boroughs can only accommodate about 2,300 people per day, which is the explanation that the administration has offered for not being able to shut down Rikers immediately.
What they plan to do however is significantly modernize the facilities in each of the boroughs but also work proactively towards reducing the daily jail population. The administration is hoping to bring the current number down by 25 percent to 7,000 in the next five years.
That will be carried out as part of this roadmap, which includes 18 immediate steps towards closing Rikers Island. They include: providing community alternatives to jail sentences that are less than 30 days; repairing existing jail facilities both on and off Rikers including repairs on air-conditioning, heating, and ventilation, and improving food services; full camera coverage in all jail facilities by the end of 2017; allowing for longer in-person visits in jails with renovated visiting areas; entering those leaving jail into a job-hunting program; and preventing future returns to jail by enforcing a five-hour minimum participation in “educational, vocational, and therapeutic programming per day.”
For a full list of all the initiatives the administration has planned head on over to the roadmap website. In order to ensure that these steps are actually carried out, the de Blasio administration has created a Justice Implementation Task Force, which will be headed by the director of the Mayor’s office of criminal justice, Elizabeth Glazer, and by the corporation counsel of the City of New York, Zachary Carter. The task force also includes folks like Carmen Fariña, the chancellor of the NYC department of education, and Cyrus Vance, Jr., the district attorney for New York County.
The biggest point of contention as this plan moves forward will be expanding the existing facilities in the boroughs or creating new spaces, which hasn’t been met by much positive reaction by local residents and elected officials in the past. The administration has argued that all five boroughs must share the responsibilities, and many other elected officials are on board with de Blasio’s plan.
"Closing Rikers Island is an idea whose time has come," Manhattan Borough President, Gale Brewer, said in a statement. "The steps being announced today will take the city toward a smaller, safer and more humane corrections system."