A day after elected officials charged that Rikers Island has descended into a humanitarian crisis, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Tuesday an emergency plan to address horrid conditions on the city’s penal facility.
Using a combination of executive powers and public appeals for state courts to do more, de Blasio’s plan aims to address an array of problems on Rikers Island that, he charged, were the direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. His solutions include getting more corrections officers on patrol at Rikers, opening up unused space to expedite inmate processing, launching emergency repairs and convincing the state to take prisoners more swiftly.
“We have a situation that is just not acceptable, and has to change fundamentally,” de Blasio said during his Sept. 14 press briefing.
Problems on Rikers Island have long festered even before the COVID-19 pandemic, but a series of recent prisoner deaths there prompted greater attention on the corrections facility in recent days. A contingent of elected officials, including Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, toured Rikers on Sept. 13 — and later told the press of “deplorable” conditions there, from prisoners living in filth or being denied required medication, to even an attempted suicide that happened in their midst.
For years, de Blasio has made it the city’s mission to close the jails on Rikers Island by 2026 and move toward creating a community-based jail system in each of the five boroughs — a plan which the City Council and City Planning Commission approved in the fall of 2019.
COVID-19 threw a wrench into those plans, and so many others in New York City, when it arrived in 2020. On Tuesday, the mayor blamed the pandemic for exacerbating problems on Rikers resulting in the “unacceptable” situation there today.
“Everything goes back to the problem of Rikers Island itself,” de Blasio said. “We need to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible, but in the meantime, we have immense challenges.”
The mayor’s “Emergency Rikers Relief Plan” will utilize NYPD officers to provide staffing support in the city’s courts, freeing up corrections officers stationed there to be reassigned to Rikers Island — and addressing the shortage of guards on patrol. The city will also crack down on corrections cops who go AWOL, mandating that any officer who takes sick leave beyond 24 hours must have a doctor’s note or undergo a medical evaluation. Those who fail to comply will face a 30-day suspension without pay.
The city will also open up two new clinic spaces on Rikers Island to expedite inmate processing — reversing a previous decision to shut them down as part of the long-term closure plan.
“Look, the original goal of course was to close down as much of Rikers as possible, as part of our plan to get off Rikers, and we wanted less space because it took fewer officers to cover less space,” de Blasio explained.
Through an executive order, the city will order emergency repairs on Rikers Island to clean the facilities and make necessary repairs to ensure inmate and guard safety. Additional medical professionals will also be dispatched there.
Along with the emergency plan, de Blasio urged the state for assistance in addressing the Rikers crisis. He asked the state Corrections Department to speed up the relocation of inmates designated for transfer to state prisons; and the Administrative Court System to immediately process at least 500 long-term pending cases for Rikers Island inmates.
De Blasio also wants state judges to recommend supervised release for non-violent offenders, something that he said would also address Rikers’ capacity issues.
The mayor said he’s been in conversations with Governor Kathy Hochul and Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin about the situation, and urged Hochul to sign into law the Less is More Act, which reforms the state’s parole standards and would make hundreds of Rikers inmates immediately eligible for release.
‘Decarcerating’ Rikers left out
De Blasio’s emergency plan drew criticism from The Legal Aid Society, which pointed out that it failed to address steps to keep more non-violent New Yorkers out of jail for minor offenses.
“It is simply unconscionable and unworkable that significant and immediate steps to decarcerate Rikers Island and other local jails are not a fundamental part of this plan,” said Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society. “Fixing this multi-layered crisis will take time — time that people whose lives are in jeopardy from dangerous and uncontrolled conditions do not have. Through Mayor de Blasio’s own plan, The Early Release (6A) Program, City Hall could immediately release more than 250 people serving less than a year for low-level crimes, requiring them to serve the remainder of their short sentences on work-release. We call on Mayor de Blasio to utilize this program at once.”
De Blasio pointed out during his press conference Tuesday that his administration previously took steps to end mass incarceration on Rikers Island and help reduce the prison population in advance of the long-term closure plan.
Darren Mack, who previously experienced Rikers Island first hand and now co-directs the Freedom Agenda at the Urban Justice Center, slammed de Blasio’s decision to reopen previously closed areas of the correctional facility.
“In finally acknowledging the crisis today, the Mayor stated that the situation on Rikers ‘has to change fundamentally’ but then proposed more of the same failed approaches including expanding use of the Rikers jails and the role of the NYPD,” Mack said. “We know what fundamental change is really needed – we need a Mayor who stands up to veiled race-baiting and outright lies from law enforcement; we need to stop allowing judges and DAs to make a person’s freedom dependent on their wealth by setting bail amounts that function as ransom; we need to disband the failed Department of Correction; and we need to move with true urgency to close Rikers Island for good.”
Williams further called upon de Blasio and Hochul Tuesday to visit Rikers Island and see the conditions there for themselves.
“Corrections staff and incarcerated people alike are in constant, imminent danger. It is a humanitarian crisis rapidly descending toward even greater disaster,” Williams said in a statement. “I implore the Mayor and the Governor to go to Rikers today, immediately. See what I saw, hear what I heard, and you will know the moral, human obligation using every tool available to provide disaster relief. It will not be easy — but any hesitation by leadership to act now amounts to responsibility for the consequences of inaction.”
But de Blasio indicated Tuesday he has no plans to go to Rikers anytime soon.
“Obviously, I’ve been several times in the past and have worked on these issues bluntly more than any other mayor I can remember,” he said. “At some point, I’m going to go out there again, but what I want to work on right now is getting these issues fixed. I have a very clear sense of the problems, I’m hearing about them regularly. I need to fix them, and the plan we laid out today is the way to do that.”