Queens Councilman Wants to Abolish Rikers Island

A view of the entrance to the Rikers Island prison complex (Photo: Spencer Platt for Getty Images)

A view of the entrance to the Rikers Island prison complex (Photo: Spencer Platt for Getty Images) Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Queens Councilman Daniel Dromm today argued the solution to rampant violence, sexual abuse and assorted criminal activities on Rikers Island is to shut down the famous detention complex entirely, and replace it with a new system of decentralized jails.

Mr. Dromm’s call came as the Board of Correction is weighing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposals to limit visitation and physical contact between and their friends and relations on the outside, which the mayor and Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte hope will stem the flow of drugs and weapons onto Rikers. The progressive Queens councilman spoke at a simultaneous rally outside City Hall, where he argued the regulations would harm children of the imprisoned and impair inmates’ efforts to return to normal life after their release.

“We are here today saying that, yes, the process is open, the hearings will be held, we want to be heard, we want to urge people to come out and say, ‘We don’t want these changes. We don’t want a rollback of what has happened, and the progress that we’ve made,” he said. “Ultimately, what we should really be talking about is abolishing Rikers Island completely.”

Mr. Dromm argued the density of Rikers Island—415 acres that on any given day hosts the vast majority of the department’s average daily population of 11,400 inmates either awaiting trial or serving a sentence of a year or less, 9,000 uniformed corrections employees and 1,500 civilian administrators—is a leading cause of disturbance. He argued the solution would be to disperse the population of prisoners and personnel across multiple locations, a point others have made as well.

“Because of the large numbers of people there, that’s a major factor in terms of the violence that occurs. So if we could break that down, and spread it out, I think we’d be in a much better position in terms of talking about reducing violent attacks,” he said.

Mr. Dromm has emerged as a proponent of increased transparency and reform in the Correction Department—and as a critic of the powerful Corrections Officers Benevolent Association union and its unpredictable president, Norman Seabrook. The politician today cited the findings of Department of Investigation Commissioner Mark Peters that most drugs reaching Rikers come through the guards.

He also alluded to the report U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara released last year detailing the “culture of violence” among the guards and the detainees at Rikers. Mr. Bharara, who sued the city over the treatment of young inmates by the corrections officers, described the brutal, chaotic environment on the island as seemingly “inspired by Lord of the Flies.”

The abolition comment drew applause from the activists gathered behind him, but the councilman said he had no intention of immediately proposing legislation to disband the 83-year-old facility. He did say he had several bills pending which would institute numerous reforms, though he said he was not at liberty to discuss them yet.

He would not guess at the level of support in the Council for scrapping the jail center entirely, but said he believed there was considerable backing for further reform measures.

“The level of understanding among all the council members have grown, and I think that there is a tremendous support, amount of support for further reforms at Rikers Island. And we’re going to see that probably in some of the pieces of legislation that are coming out,” he said.

They city is already working to remove at least some inmates from Rikers Island. As part of a settlement with Mr. Bharara, the department must “make best efforts” to find somewhere else to house inmates under 18—a move Mr. Ponte has said he supports. But as the department searches for an appropriate site—not easy to find even for that small population—Mr. Ponte has also noted the point may become moot if the state eventually votes to raise the age of criminality, something that so far has failed in Albany.