Imagine living in a county jail so big it’s the largest penal colony on earth. Remember, it holds between twenty and thirty thousand people on any given day. Imagine you are in an environment where the guards — correctional officers — bring drugs in by the duffle bag full and weapons are available from the very same guards that beat you and force you into cage fights in the ‘yard.’
You’ve just imagined what life is like on Riker’s Island, New York City’s largest jail.
Mayor de Blasio is thinking about reviving the plan to close Rikers. The jails would be replaced with new jails built in the five boroughs and would vary in size. With over 5,000 beds spread across New York’s five boroughs, the largest facility would be in Manhattan and the littlest on Staten Island.
In 2016, de Blasio established a commission to study options for Riker’s Island’s future. In March of that year, de Blasio called closing the problematic complex was a “noble idea.” He acknowledged that closing it could cost billions and take years. De Blasio refused to publicly back the idea despite the immediate need.
On March 30, 2017, former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman called commission members to inform the group that de Blasio has changed his mind and would announce his support for backing closure.
The change-of-direction for de Blasio comes amidst pressure from New York’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo. The Mayor has also been dogged by prison reform advocates at events including town halls and even a fund-raiser in Fort Lauderdale.
Under the supervision of a federal monitor, de Blasio has made changes including more training for corrections officers, revamped policies regarding the use of force and less implementation of solitary confinement.
The idea of closing the aging jail complex, located between Queens and the Bronx, and adjacent to the runways of LaGuardia Airport, has gained footing with criminal justice advocates as a move that achieves several goals simultaneously.
Closing the compound would permit safer and more modern jails which could provide improved services to inmates as well as improved working conditions for guards. Putting new jails in the boroughs reduces the travel time for court appearances, making the process faster and saving the city money. Visitation by family members would also be easier.
It was the 27-member commission, according to Herbert Sturz, a former deputy mayor for criminal justice under former-Mayor Ed Koch, that created the leverage to motivate the mayor to endorse the jail complex’s eventual closure. “It’s good for the quality of justice in the city,” Sturz said.
Despite that, there are still sticking points between the commission’s plan and City Hall.
Ultimately, closure would bring an end to the history of brutal violence on Rikers Island by inmates