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Mayor Releases 'Long and Difficult' Plan to Shutter Rikers in 10 Years

By Katie Honan | June 22, 2017 9:44am
 Rikers Island, operated by the Department of Correction, as seen from the complex's parking lot.
Rikers Island, operated by the Department of Correction, as seen from the complex's parking lot.
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DNAinfo/Katie Honan

EAST ELMHURST — Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday released his plan to close the troubled Rikers Island jail complex within 10 years, cautioning that it isn't a "quick fix."

The report, dubbed "Smaller, Safer, Fairer: A roadmap to closing Rikers Island," lays out a plan to first reduce the current inmate population and then shutter the facility on the island between Queens and the Bronx that has been called a "black hole for human rights."

The report was released Thursday by the city and was created with help from an independent report authored by former New York state Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman.

​As he's warned since announcing his intentions last spring, the mayor wrote that it won't be a quick or easy task to close the jail.

​"Rikers Island can not be closed overnight," de Blasio wrote in a letter at the start of the report, which was first released by the New York Times

READ THE CITY'S PLAN TO CLOSE RIKERS ISLAND

The mayor indirectly addressed his critics, including activists who say the decade-long timeline is too long. Some elected officials have released an alternative plan to close the complex within three years.

De Blasio said said the 10-year timeline is the best way to get everything right. 

"This will be a long and difficult path," he wrote.

The bulk of the report focuses on changes to be made over the next 10 years, including criminal justice reforms aimed at lowering the number of people in city jails.

On any given day, there are 9,400 people in custody, with the majority on Rikers Island. By comparison, there were more than 20,000 in city jails in the early 1990s, the report notes. 

Over the next five years, the city hopes to reduce the jail population to 7,000 — but ultimately they'll need fewer than 5,000 people in custody to begin a plan to close Rikers for good. 

A new Justice Implementation Task Force, jointly chaired by Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, and Zachary W. Carter, Corporation Counsel of the City of New York, will work with other officials to fully implement the plan.

Members of the steering committee include the district attorneys from each borough, Police Commissioner James O'Neill and Department of Education Chancellor Carmen Fariñ​a.

The committee also includes Joseph Ponte, who resigned as commissioner of the Department of Correction following an investigation into misuse of his taxpayer-funded vehicle. It's not clear if he'll still stay with the committee. 

The city's plan is to keep as many people as possible out of Rikers by offering alternatives and reforms, like making it easier to pay bail and investing more in the city's mental health programs.

Two $90 million "diversion centers" announced in May will also help those with mental health problems who have interactions with police find an alternative to incarceration. 

As they work to close Rikers, things will improve for both inmates and Department of Correction employees who work there, the city said.

They're investing $1 billion from the city's budget to renovate jail facilities, as well as build a new Department of Correction training facility, which is currently housed inside a mall in Middle Village.

There will also be a new visitation policy to make it easier for family and friends to see loved ones behind bars. Additionally, inmates will also have up to five hours a day of educational, vocational or emotional health training.

Surveillance cameras will be installed throughout the jail complex to help improve safety, the report says.

What the report doesn't fully describe is the highly controversial plan to open smaller jails across the five boroughs.

The mayor wrote that part of the equation of closing Rikers "will depend on the desires of neighborhoods and their elected officials" to help identify new facilities.