NEW YORK CITY — The culture of violence and neglect on Rikers Island is so severe and deeply ingrained that the only solution is to close the notorious prison complex by 2027 and raze its buildings to the ground, a plan that could save the city more than $1 billion per year, according to a new report.
The 146-page report, issued Friday by an independent commission convened by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and tasked with studying the issue, calls for the closure of the Rikers over the next 10 years through a mixture of alternative sentencing, bail reform, and the building of five smaller jails, one in each of the five boroughs.
Speaking Sunday at a press conference detailing the report, the head of the 27-member commission, former New York Chief Justice Jonathan Lippman, excoriated Rikers Island as a “penal colony” physically and psychologically remote from the city at large that does far more harm than good to anyone who ends up there.
“Put simply, it is a 19th-century solution to a 21st century problem,” Lippman said at Sunday's press conference while flanked by more than half a dozen elected city officials, including the district attorneys of The Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn.
“Rikers Island is not just physically remote — it is psychologically isolated from the rest of New York City. Rikers severs connections with families and communities, with harmful consequences for anyone who spends even a few days on the Island.”
The report, an early version of which was published in DNAinfo New York last year, spurred Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision to close the complex in 10 years.
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The new, borough-based jail system, which the commission argues would cut down on transportation and staffing costs while helping to better integrate the justice system back into the community, would cost $11.4 billion to build but could save the city $1.4 billion annually, according to the report.
The plan would start by reducing the population of the island by about half, from roughly 9,700 inmates to 5,000 inmates, by introducing an array of programs to keep offenders out of jail. That would include the elimination of short jail sentences, diversion programs to keep low-level misdemeanor cases out of criminal court, and swapping out cash bail for increased pre-trial supervision, according to the report.
Next, the plan calls for the construction of new, more humanely designed jails in the civic center areas of each borough in order to make it easier for inmates to have visitation, meet their lawyers, and travel to court, a process that sometimes requires inmates to get up at 3 a.m. and miss meals, according to the report.
The new, smaller facilities, would be built on the footprints of existing, outdated jails in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn, and would be built anew on city-owned land in The Bronx and Staten Island, according to the plan. The report calls for the largest facility to be built in Manhattan and the smallest in Staten Island.
While the report does not specifically say where the jails would be placed, saying only that there should be one in each of the five boroughs, for a total capacity of 5,500 beds, "located in city centers near or adjacent to courthouses and in close proximity to public transportation," DNAinfo reported previously that the commission had identified four sites by the time that a presentation on the plan was made to Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris in March.
Those sites included an 18-acre industrial strip known as Teleport B-1 and a tract of land in Rossville along the Arthur Kill in Staten Island. In Brooklyn, sites included a barren lot in Greenpoint owned by National Grid and a Sanitation Department garage in East New York.
The March presentation also included a plot of city land adjacent to the NYPD's police academy in College Point Queens and waterfront property in Hunts Point The Bronx that is next to where the city's 800-bed jail barge is currently moored.
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It was not immediately clear if these four sites would still be on the table for the mayor's future plan.
Finally the report calls for a “reimagining” and redevelopment of Rikers Island, which when it closes will provide a “blank slate” of 400 acres of land, which the report said could be used to expand LaGuardia airport or house solar power facilities, and other city infrastructure, which the report said could bring in $7.5 billion in annual economic activity.
Despite the portrait of the future painted by the commission, and the newfound support of the mayor, the policy proposals will not be without their hurdles. The district attorneys of Queens and Staten Island were both absent from the press conference Sunday, and even those present did not fully agree on all points, including Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr., who said he disagreed with the report’s suggestion that those found in possession of so-called gravity knives should be processed in civil court.
Elected officials have also come out against the early reports of plans to open mini-jails around the city, including State Sen. Jeff Klein and Bronx Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr., who held a rally April 15, 2016 to oppose placing any jail facilities in Hunts Point.
"The Hunts Point community spoke loud and clear that it doesn't want a 'mini-Rikers' at this site and, based on what the administration said, there was no comprehensive plan to build one,” Klein said at the time. "Yet, once again this documentation illustrates that lies are being told. Hunts Point residents deserve answers, not covert plans to house up to 2,000 inmates in their growing community.”
But supporters of the report such as Public Advocate Letitia James are already looking to the future. James, who called Rikers Island a “penal colony for the poor,” recommended there be a museum on the island dedicated to telling future generations about the mistakes of the past, and she suggested renaming the island after Kalief Browder, the Bronx man whose incarceration as a teen on Rikers Island and eventual suicide have become a symbol for the complex’s brutal disfunction.