Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged last March to close Rikers Island within 10 years. That’s still too long, given the jail’s problems.
De Blasio and his City Council partners announced sites for prospective jail replacements this month, a necessary step. But that led to complaints from Bronx politicians about placement and to more squabbling between the mayor and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. One point of urgency is including state authority for a streamlined “design-build” process to plan and finish the city’s new facilities.
Sadly, this month also saw a despicable attack at the 10-lockup facility, this time by Rikers inmates on Correction Officer Jean Souffrant, 39. The Feb. 10 attack led by an allegedly gang-affiliated inmate fractured Souffrant’s neck, and he remains in New York-Presbyterian Hospital. The incident led to calls from officers and their union for protections, including the reduced tactic of punitive segregation, or solitary confinement.
These attacks are heinous crimes and the officers deserve protection, but solitary is not the way to go. The practice’s overuse on Rikers was criticized by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in 2014. It has been found to exacerbate mental health issues, among various ills. When President Barack Obama banned the practice for juveniles in the federal prison system in 2016, he told the story of Kalief Browder, who spent time in solitary before later killing himself. Browder, of course, was held on Rikers Island.
Attacks on officers are only one problem on Rikers Island. Others include the long-standing culture of violence perpetrated by officers on inmates, and the facilities’ abominable physical problems, some of which were outlined in a recent state report. For example, some supposedly secure cell doors could be “popped open.”
These are some of the immediate issues that need to be examined as the city moves to close its dark chapter on Rikers Island. The move provides an opportunity for changes in culture, design and correction practice, and that opportunity must be seized. We can’t just relocate past mistakes.