Facing Re-Election and Political Pressure, NYC Mayor Announces Plan to Phase Out Rikers Island

A woman holds up a banner calling for Rikers Island to be shut down. Jillian Jorgensen/Observer

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced today he would finally bow to the urgings of City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and countless left-wing activists and formulate a plan to shutter the Rikers Island detention complex over the next 10 years—although the crucial work of creating a new, diffuse jail system will fall upon his successor, regardless of whether the liberal Democrat wins re-election this fall.

Standing in the City Hall rotunda with Mark-Viverito at his side, de Blasio asserted that the continued drop in crime made it feasible for the city to begin the process of closing Rikers after five years, when he projected the population of inmates awaiting trial in all facilities citywide would fall to 7,000, off of 9,300 today (roughly 7,500 of those people are now on Rikers). The mayor is currently seeking a second four-year stint in office, and Mark-Viverito is term-limited after December, and so the next administration and a future Council leader will have to endure the arduous duty of siting the numerous smaller replacement jails in neighborhoods around the five boroughs and dealing with local backlash.

The plan the mayor outlined aims to reduce the jail population to 5,000 after a decade, which he said would allow the city to relocate all inmates from its famous—and infamous—incarceration island.

“New York City will close the Rikers Island jail facility. It will take many years, it will take many tough decisions along the way. But it will happen,” de Blasio declared, tying the jail to the larger issue of the country’s massive prison population. “Rikers Island is an example and an expression of a major national problem. The mass incarceration crisis did not begin in New York City. But it will end here.”

“The decisions going forward have to be made by the mayor and the City Council, whoever those people are,” he continued, noting each new jail facility would trigger the city’s complicated Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, which ultimately requires a vote of the full Council.

Mark-Viverito, for her part, referred the famous incarceration center “an abomination” and “a hellhole.” She labeled those who might object angrily to the placement of a jail in their area—like those who have protested incoming homeless shelters—“deplorable.”

“After decades of having a system that what it wants to do is strip away the dignity of individuals that have had some level of interaction with the criminal justice system, we’re trying to put some humanity back,” she said, though she equivocated a bit when a reporter raised the possibility of a jail in her district, before concluding, “I wouldn’t be against it.”

The figures and timeframe appeared somewhat arbitrary. The mayor was short for details on how precisely they arrived at the figure of 5,000 inmates, except that his team believed it was the threshold at which the inmate population would be manageable in smaller facilities without Rikers.

The timing was also unusual. A panel that Mark-Viverito commissioned and former Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman spearheaded is due to release a report on Rikers that most expect will call for abolishing the facility.

But de Blasio insisted again and again that neither he nor any member of his administration has viewed the study. Nor did he or the Council speaker have anything in the way of an actual detailed roadmap to reinventing the jail system.

The mayor even revealed that the city had yet to scope out any particular locations for new jails, nor had even decided how many such new sites it would need.

Politically speaking, however, it does seem to make the possibility of a strong left-wing Democratic rival to de Blasio even more remote. And it positions Mark-Viverito, once rumored for a role in a presumptive Hillary Clinton administration, to claim a legacy of criminal justice reform and to launch her post-Council career as an advocate and potential future candidate for another office.

The mayor even maintained that the phaseout would not involve layoffs of correction officers, whose once-mighty union leader Norman Seabrook resigned last year amid corruption charges. He did, however, admit that a spike in crime in the next decade could upset the closure schedule.

“Any talk of getting off Rikers is meaningless if we don’t keep reducing crime,” he said.

The mayor is also counting on improved mental health services, changes to the bail system, alternative-to-prison sentencing and more efficiency in the courts to act as further valves on the Rikers population—though the last will require assistance from the state.

De Blasio’s office was feuding with Cuomo over the governor’s calls to shut down the prison as recently as a few weeks ago. The change of mind marks the latest 2017 pivot for the mayor, who recently announced his support for publicly-funded counsel for all tenants in housing court after opposing it for years.

The mayor suggested the city would eventually rename the island and use it to house other municipal institutions, host private interests or both.

Facing Re-Election and Political Pressure, NYC Mayor Announces Plan to Phase Out Rikers Island