Closing Rikers Island a big step toward needed criminal justice reform, faith leaders say

Archbishop of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan was among several faith leaders who voiced support Thursday for the borough-based jails plan meant to replace Rikers Island. Photo Credit: Howard Simmons

The City Council is expected to vote in October on a controversial plan to open four borough-based jails that would replace Rikers Island.

Archbishop of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan was among several faith leaders who voiced support Thursday for the borough-based jails plan meant to replace Rikers Island.
Archbishop of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan was among several faith leaders who voiced support Thursday for the borough-based jails plan meant to replace Rikers Island. Photo Credit: Cynthia von Buhler / Titan Comics

New York City’s faith leaders joined together on Thursday to make an impassioned plea to the City Council: Close Rikers Island.

The council is expected to vote in October on a controversial plan to open four borough-based jails that are intended to replace the scandal- and violence-plagued jail complex.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Rev. A. R. Bernard, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik and members of the Commission of Religious Leaders were joined by Judge Jonathan Lippman, chair of the Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, as they made their case outside of the New York County Courthouse Thursday morning.

“The life and dignity of the human person must be applied to all. May we work together to establish a redemptive environment for our incarcerated brothers and sisters,” Dolan said.

The Commission of Religious Leaders, in a statement released after the event, said closing Rikers Island will be “one of the big steps” toward achieving necessary criminal justice reform.

“The conditions found in Rikers Island robs the imprisoned of their dignity, denies them justice, and deprives them of mercy,” the group said. “Together, we call for creative solutions that will establish a redemptive environment for our incarcerated brothers and sisters, and fulfill the moral mandate of ‘Righteous Judgment’ (Deut. 16:18).”

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to shutter Rikers by 2026 hinges on the city’s ability to open smaller, 1,150-bed facilities in Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx. The jails have been touted as a more humane alternative to Rikers by both design and location as well as the services that would be made available to reduce recidivism.

However, the de Blasio administration’s closed-door decision-making regarding the locations of the new jails has drawn the ire of local officials, residents and criminal justice advocates.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. has repeatedly called on the mayor to reconsider the plan to build a new jail in the borough – the only new facility in the entire plan. The blueprints for jails in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan involve reconstructing existing facilities attached to courthouses in the boroughs.

Some advocates have argued that Rikers Island must close, but the city should instead invest the funds meant for new jails back into communities and programs that would prevent the need for four 1,150 facilities.

Despite the opposition, the borough-based jails plan has made it through to the last step in the city’s land use approvals process: a City Council vote.

Lippman said the discourse around the new jails actually highlights the need to close Rikers Island.

"At a time when the discussion around Rikers is so centered on building height, zoning and traffic, it is more important than ever that we return back to the original purpose of this proposal: to put an end to the accelerator of human misery that is Rikers Island. For decades, we have done nothing as thousands of New Yorkers – most of whom are black or brown – have cycled through a place that is a symbol of violence, corruption and inhumanity," he said.

"We finally have a chance to transform our justice system into a smaller, more humane system that brings people closer to their families, loved ones, and critical services."

Lauren Cook