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Mayor Pledges to Close Rikers Island in 10 Years, Reduce Jail Population

By  Katie Honan and Eddie Small | March 31, 2017 8:35am | Updated on March 31, 2017 5:05pm

 de Blasio announced on Friday that the city plans to close Rikers Island in 10 years.
de Blasio announced on Friday that the city plans to close Rikers Island in 10 years.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

EAST ELMHURST — Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged on Friday to close Rikers Island in 10 years and set a goal to get the city's jail population down to 5,000 inmates to make it happen.

"There is no doubt that the road to Rikers Island’s closure will be long and arduous," de Blasio said in a statement. "It will require that local officials and stakeholders stand up and support facilities that meet our moral obligation to thousands of New Yorkers whose lives we will never turn our backs on."

DNAinfo New York reported last year about the city's study to close Rikers and place smaller jails in communities around the five boroughs, an effort dubbed "Project Sean Connery," according to a presentation. De Blasio flatly denied the story at the time.

Former New York state Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who was part of the group discussing the alternatives to the beleaguered Rikers, released a 146-page report Friday afternoon recommending the city replace the correction complex with smaller jails around the city.

"We reviewed, studied, and debated every possible solution to the problem of Rikers. We have concluded that simply reducing the inmate population, renovating the existing facilities, or increasing resources will not solve the deep, underlying issues on Rikers Island. We are recommending, without hesitation or equivocation, permanently ending the use of Rikers Island
as a jail facility in any form or function," the multimedia report begins.

"Closing Rikers Island is a moral imperative. The Island is a powerful sympbol of a discredited approach to criminal justice — a penal colony that subjects all within its walls to inhumane conditions."

 City Hall Quietly Eyes Neighborhoods for New Jails to Replace Rikers Island
► Here Are City Documents on 'Effort' to Close Rikers That De Blasio Denies
​► Rikers Island: The Evolution of City Hall's Search for a Fix

The report is in keeping with DNAinfo's reporting from last year, which detailed the plans to close Rikers Island's jail facilities and enumerated a plan to replace it with smaller jails across the city, including two 1,500 to 2,000-bed facilities next to the new Police Academy in College Point and another next to the city's jail barge in Hunts Point.

The rest of the inmate population would be housed in smaller jails in locations in East New York, Williamsburg and two on Staten Island, according to the study. The city began looking for alternatives at the end of summer 2015.

De Blasio repeatedly denied that report last year — calling it a "noble concept" that couldn't work because it would "cost many billions" to do.

At a press conference Friday, he declined to explain his insistence that the plan was not in the works, when it clearly was, saying only that his team had "gained confidence" over the last year and moved forward with a plan to close Rikers.

“A year ago we did not believe it could be done, it’s as simple as that,” de Blasio said Friday. “We had to really work to find a formula we can believe in, it took a lot of work, and also we have an objective input we didn’t have before.”

He said the key to closing Rikers is the continual reduction of its inmates — which is tied to the steady reduction of crime across the city since he took office.

"This begins with lowering the jail population overall," he said. "That begins and ends with reducing crime. This is how the pieces fit together." 

The push to reform Rikers was sparked in part by the case of Kalief Browder, who spent three years at the notorious jail, largely in solitary confinement, while awaiting trial on charges of stealing a backpack. Browder committed suicide after his 2015 release.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has also been integral in pushing for its closure. The mayor said her work was "crucial" in allowing the city to come up with a plan to close the facility.

Councilman Danny Dromm, who has also pushed for the closure of Rikers Island, called the correctional facility a "black hole for human rights" and praised the plan to close it.

"Rikers Island's culture of violence remains a constant threat to the well-being of both corrections officers and the incarcerated," he said in a statement. 

Mark Viverito said the plan ushers in a new era of criminal justice reform, which brings dignity to incarcerated people.

"This is a whole philosophy shift about how do we see incarcerated people — with humanity or believing that we absolutely, that they have one flaw and we forget about them," she said.

"We have to challenge ourselves and a city and communities that we have a role to play with the successful reintegration of people into our communities, and giving a lot of people a second chance."