A special commission that has examined problems at Rikers Island for the past year recommended Sunday that New York City’s massive and violence-plagued correction complex be shuttered and replaced by five smaller jails, one in each borough.
The panel’s recommendation, outlined in a 148-page report, laid the groundwork for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement on Friday that the city would seek to close Rikers in 2027 in favor of a borough-based jail system.
Former New York Chief Justice Jonathan Lippman, who served as chairman of the 27-member Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, and New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who convened the panel last year, joined members of the commission at John Jay College in midtown Manhattan to discuss their recommendations.
“It’s a 19th-century solution to a 21st-century problem,” Lippman said of Rikers’ mass incarceration model. “The solution we propose is to make jail the last resort . . . not just a path of least resistance. . . . We want to turn a beacon of despair into a beacon of safety, humanity and justice.”
The commission recommends constructing one jail in each of the five boroughs. The sites would be closer to court facilities, the panel said, reducing the cost and time associated with transporting inmates to and from court hearings, and providing inmates with more opportunities to see their families, which would help in their rehabilitation.
Lippman said the new jails would cost at least $11.4 billion, but would save the city $1.4 billion annually by reducing the expenses associated with staffing the large Rikers complex. He said the city could use the Rikers property to spur economic development, including using it to create an auxiliary runway for LaGuardia Airport to help ease congestion and delays.
Mark-Viverito, who described Rikers Island as “a symbol of dysfunction and violence,” said moving to a borough-based jail system would lead to a “more humane, effective, community-based justice system.”
Calls to close Rikers intensified soon after the U.S. Justice Department issued a scathing report in 2014 detailing excessive use of force by correction officers and “a deep-seated culture of violence” among inmates.
The city’s Public Advocate Letitia James, who attended the event, lauded the plan, saying the complex has become “a penal colony for the poor” and “de facto hospitals for the mentally ill.”
James recommended renaming Rikers Island in honor of Khalief Browder, whose 2015 suicide also provoked calls for reform at the jail. Browder, was 16 when he was arrested on charges of stealing a backpack. The teen, who maintained his innocence, was held at Rikers for three years, largely in solitary confinement, before his case was brought to trial and he was released.