De Blasio Says Idea of Closing Rikers Jail Complex Is Unrealistic

J. David Goodman | NY Times

It began as a “dream” on Thursday, in a speech by the New York City Council speaker: closing the Rikers Island jail complex.

Over the weekend, the idea gathered steam; shuttering the scandal-plagued complex was characterized by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo as a “big solution” to a “big problem.”

By Tuesday, the notion of closing Rikers had drawn a response from MayorBill de Blasio, who found himself in the unusual position of playing the political pragmatist. He said the idea was a “noble concept,” but then declared it all but dead in the water, a fanciful proposal somewhere on the spectrum between a hassle-free subway ride and world peace.

“There is a certain appeal to the notion of starting over,” Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, told reporters on Tuesday, while promoting his $2.5 billion plan for a Brooklyn-Queens streetcar line. “The problem is, it would cost many billions of dollars, and I have to look out for what’s feasible and I have to look out for the taxpayer.”

But closing Rikers has gained political momentum over the last few days since the Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, endorsed in her State of the City address the idea of mothballing the unloved complex that covers the more than 400-acre island, and replacing it with an archipelago of neighborhood jails.

Mr. Cuomo pressed his support in a series of radio and television interviews Tuesday morning, linking the idea of closing Rikers to other big and expensive infrastructure projects he has embarked on, like a new La Guardia Airport and a new Tappan Zee Bridge, and dismissing the suggestion that it would be too mammoth, complicated and costly. “We’re New Yorkers,” Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, said. “We can do it.”

For Mr. Cuomo, calling for wholesale change at Rikers has been in keeping with several other forays he has made into criminal justice reform over the past year, part of a reinvigorated emphasis on liberal issues. He has pointed out that he has closed more state prisons — 13 so far — than any other New York governor. But apart from state oversight of jail construction and providing funds, Albany has little role in the operations of city jails.

Ms. Mark-Viverito, also a Democrat, said in her speech that the Council would create an independent commission, led by the state’s former chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, to study the criminal justice system with an eye toward shrinking the jail population so that closing the Rikers complex could be a reality. The commission was given a year.

But Mr. de Blasio, the only one of the three leaders with the power to begin reorganizing New York City’s jails, has not taken up the banner. On Tuesday, he stressed how impractical — though laudable — such talk had been.

“We’ve looked at the basic question,” the mayor said of his administration, which has sought to reduce the number of people held on Rikers and improve conditions for those who are there. But, he said, it would cost “billions of dollars that right now we don’t have,” never mind the sizable “logistical issues.”

For a mayor who has at times reveled in they-say-it-can’t-be-done promises and programs, it was a moment to display the sort of political pragmatism that he has tried to underscore in recent speeches and in his budget presentation, which contained few big new initiatives.

“I want to be real with people,” Mr. de Blasio said at one point on Tuesday.

“My job is to level with the people of New York City,” he said later.

There are roughly 10,000 inmates in the city’s jail system, a vast majority of whom are housed on Rikers Island. Any plan to close the crumbling facilities, which have been the site of brutal episodes of violence and are now subject to federal oversight, would probably require Mr. de Blasio to embark on a yearslong political war fought in many pitched battles.

(Already the de Blasio administration has struggled in the much smaller task of moving 16- and 17-year-old inmates from Rikers Island. No suitable alternative has been found so far.)

The first battle would be in the court system, where officials would have to wring efficiencies out of the process to bring the Rikers population to a more manageable level. That effort, joined by Mr. de Blasio as well as Ms. Mark-Viverito and Mr. Lippman, has already begun and is focused on bail and summons reform. But the culture of criminal justice would also have to shift — among lawyers, judges and district attorneys — to ensure that fewer New Yorkers languish in city jails awaiting trial, experts said.

The move would require changing “the way the city’s criminal justice system operates,” said Michael P. Jacobson, a former city correction commissioner who has written on downsizing prisons. By some estimates, those changes, coupled with diversion programs, could cut the jail population in half. “At that point, our rate would be a European rate,” he said, speaking of the proportion of New Yorkers who are in jail.

“It would be hard to find anyone that’s opposed to closing Rikers, but it would be equally hard to find anyone who has a plan to actually do it,” said Mark J. Cranston, the warden of Middlesex County, N.J., who served as the acting commissioner of New York City’s jails in 2014. “Even if the administration is successful in reducing the population by 50 percent over the next decade, which would be an awesome accomplishment, we’d still have to house 5,000 inmates.”

That leads to the second major challenge: building new jails in city neighborhoods where resistance is likely to be fierce. Besides Rikers Island, the city has jails in Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn, as well as on a floating barge in the East River, but those facilities total only about 2,400 beds.

There is a disused jail behind the Queens County courthouse that is too old to be revived, officials said. But the location could be suitable for a new jail, said Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, a Queens Democrat who voiced support for the speaker’s vision.

David Anthony Fullard, an assistant professor at the State University of New York and former captain on Rikers Island, said the new jails should house no more than 500 inmates, ideally with a ratio of roughly one guard per eight inmates, about half the current ratio at Rikers.

“The jails should be in the communities where the inmates are coming from,” Mr. Fullard added. “It shouldn’t be on Park Avenue. It should be in Bed-Stuy. It should be in the South Bronx.”

He said that closing Rikers was “an old idea,” but that the fact that politicians were “actually contemplating doing something” was important. “Because they have the power to do it,” he said.

Should the island be cleared of its jail population, a third battle would ensue: what to do with a sprawling island’s worth of new waterfront real estate. In the past, planners have suggested expanding La Guardia Airport there. Or the island could have thousands of new apartments, if new transportation options were developed in tandem.

“You could make Rikers Island a community,” Ms. Crowley said. “Even if it were to have one jail on it. It’s not as if people are breaking out of the jail.”