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Rikers Island jail complex could be closed by 2024

A report says planning for lockups in boroughs and a declining inmate headcount are reasons the 1930s-era jail may be shut earlier than expected.

Rikers Island could be closed by 2024, according

Rikers Island could be closed by 2024, according to a panel report to be released Thursday. Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

Rikers Island, New York City’s violence-plagued jail complex, can be closed by 2024 — three years sooner than the city is planning, according to a panel led by the state’s former chief judge.

The reasons, says a panel report to be issued Thursday, include a faster-than-expected process for choosing locations in the boroughs to put replacement lockups, a shrinking inmate headcount and new authority that Albany granted days ago to cut red tape in jail design and building.

“We think it is credible to believe that we can finish and complete the construction and closing this horror show by sometime in 2024 — or maybe even earlier,” the former chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, said in an interview. He chairs the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform.

Natalie Grybauskas, a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, said in an email, “We’re open to discussing any concrete options that make a shorter timeline possible, but haven’t seen the report.”

Lippman’s panel and advocates for inmates and their families want to close Rikers because the 1930s-era complex is decrepit and dangerous to inmates and guards alike; buses must transport inmates to courts across the city, wasting time and fuel; and visitors must take long journeys to see loved ones. Visits have been shown to reduce recidivism.

The U.S. Justice Department in 2014 said Rikers, where most inmates are pre-trial detainees and innocent under the law, has a “deep-seated culture of violence.”

In place of Rikers, the de Blasio administration has begun planning for jails in all boroughs except Staten Island, whose borough president secured an election-year promise that no jail would go there.

De Blasio said in February that the borough-based jails in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan would be near courthouses at existing facilities and at a new lockup planned for the Bronx.

The authority granted by Albany — called design-build — streamlines a process ordinarily required by state law that inflates project length and cost by mandating the bifurcation of design and construction phases.

The Rikers Island closure, which Lippman’s panel recommended a year ago and de Blasio reversed course in agreeing to, could be hastened further if Albany enacts changes to the criminal court system, such as ending cash bail for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, speeding the disclosure of trial evidence known as discovery, and reducing trial delays.

Such changes “would be transformative,” Lippman’s panel said.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo touted those ideas in his State of the State address in January, but they were not included in the budget deal reached with legislators.

In the report, Lippman lamented troubling Rikers statistics, such as skyrocketing violence on an island that locks up an average of about 9,000 people a day.

“Too many people remain in jail, many of whom are held because they cannot afford to pay bail,” according to a draft of the report. “The conditions on Rikers remain wretched for detained persons, correction officers, staff, and visitors alike.”

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