Cuomo Calls de Blasio’s 10-Year Timetable for Closing Rikers Island a Cop-Out

"If they weren't poor people and they weren't minorities and they weren't criminals, you'd see how fast they'd close it down."

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

Gov. Andrew Cuomo jabbed Mayor Bill de Blasio over his plan to phase out the Rikers Island correctional facility over the next decade—insisting the city would complete the task far faster if the majority of inmates were white.

The governor hit his fellow Democrat and longtime rival over the protracted shutdown process at a rally in Harlem celebrating the successful passage of the “Raise the Age” initiative, which will forbid prosecutors from trying teenagers as adults for misdemeanors and most nonviolent felonies, in the new state budget. Cuomo, who draws on much of the same African-American and Hispanic political base as de Blasio, asserted the the gradual approach to closure had race and class overtones.

“Rikers Island is an abomination! And don’t tell me it’s going to take 10 years to fix that abomination. Because when you want to do something you do it, and it doesn’t have to take 10 years,” the governor shouted over roaring applause from the crowd, which included Rev. Al Sharpton and retired Congressman Charles Rangel. “If they weren’t poor people and they weren’t minorities and they weren’t criminals, you’d see how fast they’d close it down, if they wanted to close it down.”

De Blasio opposed proposals to close the incarceration facility as recently as a month ago, which the governor attacked as a lack of “political will.” Facing re-election this fall, the mayor caved to pressure on his left in March and agreed to a 10-year timeline for shrinking the jail population to 5,000 people and dispersing holding facilities for the accused to locations across the five boroughs.

The first benchmark in the de Blasio plan will be in 2022, when term limits dictate he will no longer be in office. This means the burden of actually convincing communities to accept new jail facilities in their neighborhood will fall entirely upon his successor.

The liberal mayor has maintained that the shuttering must proceed slowly, as it requires a substantial reduction in the crime rate. In response to the governor, de Blasio’s office blamed “decades of government inaction at the local and state level” for the conditions on Rikers Island.

The mayor’s camp further pointed out that out a commission that studied closing the jail facilities there—one impaneled by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and led by former Appeals Court Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman—endorsed the 10-year interval. Finally, it took a swipe at the notoriously abusive state prison system that Cuomo oversees.

“While we welcome the governor to the correctional reform debate, he should begin his work with his own state prison system,” said spokesman Eric Phillips. “The mayor will continue to lead dramatic progress in city corrections and Rikers Island’s closure.”

The de Blasio administration has repeatedly credited itself with reducing the number of minors interned at Rikers to 140, even though it was a lawsuit by former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office that prompted the reform. Cuomo boasted today that his administration would ensure nobody under age 18 would remain at the facility by 2018.

“Whatever, whatever the city does, the state is demanding all 16- and 17-year olds are off Rikers Island by next year, period,” the governor said.

Updated to include comment from de Blasio’s office.

Cuomo Calls de Blasio’s 10-Year Timetable for Closing Rikers Island a Cop-Out